Thursday, September 12, 2013

On Reading "Middlesex"

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex.  I'm about eleven years late, given that the novel was published in 2002, but much of my life today can be described as The Education of a Transgender Rip Van Winkle.  With only short, fleeting exceptions, from 1976 until 2010 I kept myself purposely isolated from any literature having a theme bordering on transgender.  I'm still playing catch-up.

Cal, born Calliope, the central character and narrator of Middlesex, is not transgender but intersex.  Still, I think it would be hard for any woman or man of transgender experience to read the novel without emotion.  There are just enough overlaps with my own life to make the experience of reading it that much more personal.

As the adult narrator telling the story of his life, Cal is a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department.  That fact becomes evident in the first pages and helped to pull me in.  He grew up in Detroit, the city of my father's birth, not far from Monroe, the town where I spent so many summers in my youth with my aunt, uncle, and cousins.

Callie is raised as a girl when the family physician fails to recognize that externally feminine genitalia hide undescended testes.  She has a happy girlhood.  When puberty comes, she at first experiences distress as she fails to develop as a young woman and fails to begin menstruating.  When she finds herself attracted to her closest girlfriend in physical ways that she can not understand, she is confused.

There was no ambiguity regarding my genitalia at birth.  I was clearly a boy and was raised as such, albeit with no particular emphasis on the masculine.  I have written already about the gender confusion that began to enter my own consciousness by age five, a confusion that was full blown by age ten when I was praying nightly to wake as a girl in the morning.  I also knew even at that young age that I could tell no one.  If Callie felt herself a monster when she first learns of her intersex condition, I secretly feared that I was a freak who had to hide deeply all the feelings that were on the inside.

Despite these childhood differences, there is another intersection between Cal's life and my own:  John Money.  Cal's story in Middlesex is a milder version of the real life story of John Money and David Reimer.  Dr. Peter Luce, the New York specialist who treats Callie at age fourteen, is clearly modeled on John Money and his gender identity clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

John Money became notorious because of his involvement in the treatment of David Reimer.  After their son was mutilated at birth through a botched circumcision, Reimer's parents took him to John Money, who recommended that they raise their son as their daughter Brenda.  Money believed that nurture, not nature, was most important in the formation of gender identity.  Reimer, however, began to manifest a male identity after puberty, ultimately renouncing his female identity entirely.  The case is described in John Colapinto's As Nature Made Him:  The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl.  Reimer committed suicide in 2004.  His case figures large in the intersex community and the movement to allow intersex children to develop as they are born, giving them the right to choose their own paths when they are old enough to do so.  Money is described by many as unethical for his treatment of Reimer, but there are a few, if not many, defenders as well.  One thing that is clear about John Money is that he was one of the founders of gender identity studies.  It was Money who first distinguished between sex and gender, in the process coining the phrase gender identity.

My own brush with John Money and the gender identity clinic at Hopkins was fleeting but real.  It was 1975. Jan Morris' Conundrum had just been published, the first book that let me know I was not alone in that pre-Internet world.  I was devouring everything I could on the subject of transsexuality in the science library at the University of Virginia.  It was there that I first read about the clinic at Hopkins.  I wrote a letter and received an answer inviting me to come to the clinic for evaluation.  I doubt the letter was from Money himself -- more likely it was from someone on his staff -- but I remember the excitement of holding that reply in my hands.  As the ensuing months were to show, I did not have the nerve to follow through.  I was just too scared.  Who knows what Money would have thought of me had I gone?  In those days sexual reassignment surgery was approved only as a last resort and only for those who exhibited behavior that was clearly at variance with their birth sex.  I, on the other hand, had learned to hide, but perhaps Money would have seen below that surface?  In 1975 I looked to Hopkins as the miracle clinic where maybe, just maybe, someone would understand.

Calliope runs away from her parents and from Dr. Luce when she learns she is intersex.  Cal embraces his male identity, choosing to live his life in his own body.  My own transgender experience and that of many transsexuals is just the opposite, the experience of hating our bodies and avoiding mirrors.  Still, there is much that is familiar in Cal's story.  He has lived in both halves of our still largely bi-gender culture and has absorbed both.  Looking back at his life, he writes, "I remain in essential ways Tessie's daughter."  Although the female identity was always there in me, I learned against my own inward nature to function and live as a man.  Cal and Calliope, Robyn and Robert, we both have had the gift of seeing and experiencing life in two genders.  It is a gift, one that most of those we know, even those to whom we are closest, can scarcely imagine.

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