Intersex Day of Remembrance

OII logoToday, 8 November, is Intersex Day of Remembrance. From the Organisation Intersex International (OII) website (here and here):

Today, Intersex Day of Remembrance, is the 14th and ultimate day of The Fourteen Days of Intersex celebrated by intersex people the world over. The Fourteen Days of Intersex commences with Intersex Awareness Day on the 26th October each year.


All human rights organizations, feminist allies, academics and gender specialists, as well as other groups and individuals interested in intersex human rights, are invited to show their solidarity by organizing workshops, lectures, discussions and other activities which deal with any or all of the following topics:

  • The life of Herculine Barbin.
  • Intersex genital mutilation.
  • The violence of the binary sex and gender system.
  • The sexism implicit within the binary construct of sex and gender.
  • Human rights. Intersex issues are feminist issues.

The date of 8 November was selected, not to recall a specific public protest in the U.S. (as it was in the case of Intersex Awareness Day) but because it marks the birthday of Herculine Barbin, a nineteenth century French intersex man whose too-short life’s experiences were recorded in his memoirs, published by Michel Foucault in 1980.

I’ve been (very) slowly reading those memoirs over the past few months and, although immensely distressing in places, one thing really does come across. Namely that, despite nearly 150 years of “progress” within society, mainstream attitudes to intersex people are still firmly mired in a past of prejudice, bigotry and almost superstitious ignorance. Like many intersex people today Herculine Barbin was subjected to the power that non-intersex people have, to impose a socially constructed gender binary on him, simply because his anatomy fell outside those dangerously narrow binary boundaries. The medical profession of the day may not have subjected him to the barbaric techniques of surgically enforced normalisation in the way we do today (probably only because such techniques were unavailable) – nevertheless, its blinkered attitudes provided it with the justification it needed to use its socio/political and cultural authority to enforce cultural stereotypes of what is meant by male and female – stereotypes which still hold sway today.

Then, as now, an intersex person’s right to bodily autonomy was not recognised. These days we refer to it as a breach of human rights – and we still ignore those rights when intersex people are involved. And, it could be argued, that the appalling treatment to which society subjected Herculine Barbin was a major factor in driving him to complete his suicide in 1868 at the age of 30 years.

“A man with wings who’ll never fly, watch him as he shuffles by.”

If we do nothing else today, it would be something, at least, to acknowledge this long-standing display of prejudice and power against intersex people the world over, and think carefully about what we might do to help bring it to an end.