College of LAS « Illinois

Faculty Focus

Voices from the Gender Divide

Researcher studies how an obscure minority gained its identity.


At the heart of Stephanie Hilger’s research in comparative literature lies a love story. It starts in the mid-1800s with a young Frenchwoman named Herculine Barbin, who kept falling for the most unlikely people.

While studying at a convent Barbin was punished for slipping into a friend’s room at night. At a different school, she fell in love with a teacher, and when she got a job teaching at a girls’ school, Barbin fell in love with yet another teacher.

Her romantic life took a momentous turn in her early 20s when she saw a doctor about persistent physical pain. The doctor made a stunning discovery that would forever change Barbin’s life, and eventually, some say, the lives of countless others. Within her body Barbin possessed male organs.

By that time people with physical characteristics of both sexes had long been a subject of medical discourse. What made Barbin’s case a landmark moment, however, actually came a few years later, after Barbin assumed the identity of a male and, tragically, committed suicide. Next to his body they found his written memoirs, regarded as one of the first insights into life as an intersex individual.

The story strikes a theme in Hilger’s work. Hilger studies how, over the course of a couple of centuries, intersex people—a modern term for hermaphrodites—have advanced from being the despairing, voiceless subject of autopsy reports to having their own articulate voice.

More broadly, Hilger’s research shows how literature helps society come to terms with social issues that are difficult to talk about. Hilger says that through the written works that have emerged since Barbin’s memoirs, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 novel Middlesex, most people can at least partly relate to an intersex person through the theme of being an outsider. It has slowly translated into a better quality of life for people with that condition.

“It’s a way of talking about all kinds of other differences,” Hilger says. “If you ask someone if they’ve ever felt that they were different, if people made fun of you, I think 90 percent would say yes. That becomes the way to connect to these texts.”

As late as the 19th century, intersex individuals were only classified as such during post-mortem examinations, Hilger says, inspiring one researcher of the intersex condition to comment, “The only true hermaphrodite was a dead hermaphrodite.”

Different forces, including the ripple effects from Barbin’s memoirs, began undoing that notion. About 100 years ago, Hilger says, living intersex patient studies became more common because they were needed as documentation for legal petitions to change gender status.

With the gender question reaching the courts, intersex individuals became a feature in the old philosophical debate of nature vs. nurture. Karl M. Baer, a prominent author who was born female before he was reassigned as a male in the early 20th century, wrote under a pseudonym, N.O. Body, to tell his secret story and address the struggles of intersex individuals trying to settle in a two-gender society.

Intersex individuals gained sympathy, and Hilger says she noticed a “tension” in old doctor’s reports as they seemed to struggle between the professional obligation to categorize an intersex individual through medical means, such as measuring their physical characteristics, and the person’s own sense of identity.

At one time, it was assumed that the parents would make the decision at birth whether an intersex individual was a boy or girl, and a surgeon would make the necessary adjustments. Gradually through the 20th century, however, experts debated whether the child should decide for himself or herself. The Intersex Society of North America currently recommends assigning a gender to an intersex newborn, but refraining from surgery until the individual grows up and makes his or her own decision.

The issue fed into a larger issue about the patient’s right to make informed decisions about treatment. Indeed, Hilger points out parallels between the intersex people who began writing about their experiences, and others, such as champion bicyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, who write about overcoming health issues.

People who overcome medical conditions often write so they can be more than “these objects in the hospital being passed around from one room to the next,” Hilger says.

“Who has right to say what happens to your body?” Hilger asks. “Those are the questions these texts raise. In literature you really have a good way to think about that.”

Through writing, intersex individuals made themselves easier to understand. And they began developing their own ideas of self—regardless of what surgeons had left them with.

By Paul Wood and Dave Evensen
Summer 2012