Sunday, April 29, 2007

SPOILER: If you haven't read the book Middlesex, and I do recommend it, you should know that I talk about some of the plot points extensively in this post. I don't think I give away much that the author doesn't also give away in the first page of the book, but if you expect to read the book at some point, consider yourself warned.

I've just finished reading a very good book, Middlesex, that everyone else read a couple of years ago. I was supposed to read it a couple of years ago too, when my book club read it, but I wasn't able to go to the meeting so I didn't read the book till now. In it, a hermaphrodite, Calliope/Cal, describes the family events that led to his/her birth and being raised to the age of 14 as a girl before discovering that she was actually genetically male. In an interesting coincidence, I also watched a 20/20 special on transgendered children, or children who believe they were born into the wrong body because they feel themselves to be the other gender. The special profiled three children: a teen who is biologically female but is now living life as a boy; the saddest 10-year-old I've ever seen, who was born a boy but has always felt she was a girl, watching jealously as her twin sister was everything she wanted to be (she is now living as a girl); and a 6-year-old who was born male but lives as the girl she's been proclaiming herself to be since she was two. It was riveting TV. And it made me thing more about what happens to the main character in Middlesex.

As Calliope reaches puberty, she begins to sense that her body is different from those of female classmates, and she is uncomfortable with the sexual feelings she has for girls, especially the one she refers to as the Object (of her affection, of course). But until that tender age fails to produce breasts and crushes on boys, Callie is comfortable being a girl -- in fact, up until that time, she thinks of herself as a very pretty girl. But after an examination at the emergency room following an accident reveals that something is amiss between her legs and her parents take her to an expert in gender reassignment and other intersex issues, she is so disturbed at the prospect of hormones and surgery to keep her a woman that she runs away from her family and begins living as a young man, never to return to her former female self.

Based solely on what the special about 20/20 said, it would seem that the novel, while compelling, is just plain... well, wrong. The "sexologist" Callie sees notes in his report how remarkable it is that, although chromosomally she is XY, having been raised as a girl, she feels herself to be female, but she is horrified enough at his conclusiont hat she is a biologically male (and in the knowledge that she is attracted to females) that she leaves everything she knows and transforms herself into a male. What little I learned about transgendered individuals indicates that there is one more, evidently even more important factor in determining gender than biology or socialization, a kind of gender identification we are all born with, something that Calliope would presumably not be able to just turn on its ear in order to transform into Cal.

I do recognize that transgendered (feeling oneself to be the opposite sex of the body one is born into) is different than intersexual (born somehow neither completely male nor female in a biological or genetic sense), and I don't know anything about how gender identity works in intersexuals, but all this sure has got me thinking about how central the concept of gender is in our lives. It seems so basic, so cut and dried: you have one set of plumping and you're a girl, the other and you're a guy. Apparently not. Off to do some research on the subject...

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