Early Trans and Intersex Narratives

Three books in a row. From left to right they are: "Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century French Hermaphrodite" compiled by Michael Foucault; "Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress" by Magnus Hirschfeld; and "From Female to Male: The Life of Jack Bee Garland" by Lou Sullivan

Continuing with the theme of trans and intersex narratives, I have made up a short master post of early memoirs and biographies of trans and intersex figures that I am familiar with, including the ones I discussed in this month’s review. I am here defining early as having been born in the 1800s, even if their text wasn’t published until later. They are listed in order of age range.

This is the earliest written memoir I have found in my studies. The actual memoir portion of the book is quite good, though pieces are missing due to mishandling. It’s the extra “dossier” at the end of the book, along with the introduction, that Foucault added full of legal and medical reports and a fictional story based on Barbin’s life a that I find deeply fetishistic. As it is a book that gets taught in queer studies classes, you may be able to find a pdf online without having to spend money on it or, if you’re at university, the school library might have it. If you do want to buy it, I would recommend buying used. 

First published in German in 1910 and later translated into English in 1991, the book spends pages 17 to 123 going into 17 case studies of trans people who have detailed their lives for Hirschfeld. It can be a slow slog through dated and a bit technical language, but I think ultimately very enjoyable for someone interested in trans history. 

This is the one genuine biography out of the set. Published by trans man and activist Lou Sullivan in 1990, he was drawn to Jack Garland after hearing about him in a presentation. Unfortunately, this book is out of print and can be difficult to find. To my shame, while I do own this book, I haven’t read it yet. Perhaps it will appear as a future review.

  • 1882-1931 – “Man into Woman” compiled by Niels Hoyer

Lili Elbe’s memoir is an interesting case, written in third person with identities masked and compiled by a third party. Outside of some of the cases in Hirschfeld’s “Transexuals,” this is the only genuine memoir I have found of a trans woman. This can be found in a number of ways, I own the new ebook version “Lili: Portrait of the World’s First Sex Change” as well as a facsimile reprint of “Man into Woman.” Getting your hands on an original copy can prove difficult and pricey.

Update 6/15/20: “Man into Woman” was recently republished in a comparative academic edition that goes hand in hand with an online archive.

Published in 1907 and reprinted 100 years later with a beautiful afterward detailing the man behind N. O. Body. See review for more information.

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Memoir of a Man’s Maiden Years by N.O. Body/Karl Baer

Cover of "Memoirs of a Man's Maiden Years" 
Snapchat caption: History time!!!

If you’re interested in the genre of early trans memoir, then I cannot recommend this book enough. While much of the content does reflect the conventions of early trans memoirs, it is important to remember that N. O. Body/Karl Baer, was also intersex. This fact cannot and should not be overlooked in the reading of the memoir. Of the early trans/intersex memoirs I have read, I would recommend this above “Herculine Barbin” as presented by Michael Foucault.

The memoir deals in the early years of Karl Baer’s life as he is raised as a girl. A Jewish man, Baer disguised his identity in his memoir writing under the pseudonym N. O. Body, and making himself of Catholic French decent. While this obscures some details of his life, the underlying message is clear, this is a book, published in 1907, with support of some of the leading medical minds of the time, calling for understanding and acceptance. This call for acceptance and emphasis on medical professionals is quite typical for early trans memoirs and remnants of this can still be seen in the genre today, though it’s much less present than it was. 

Obscuring details is also common in these very early memoirs. Lili Elbe’s “Man into Women” was also published with her name changed in the text, as well as it being written in third person like a novel. Additionally, her memoir passed through multiple hands after her death, so it is unclear what was her editing and what other people’s edits were. In this sense, despite the changes made by Baer himself, it’s almost a more genuine narrative, due to less ambiguity surrounding the who wrote what. 

Another instance is of this is “Herculine Barbin,” which is presented by Foucault in an incredibly fetishistic manner. Including medical and “scientific” reports about Barbin as well as a fictional story based on their life along side Barbin’s memoir, it is therefore even more unsettling when you learn that the Barbin’s narrative is incomplete. A large portion was lost by one of the many doctor’s fascinated with Barbin’s case. Ultimately, the focus of the book is on the tragedy of Barbin’s life and death and the fetishistic fascination with their genitals.

On the opposite side, Magnus Hirschfeld’s epilogue to Baer’s memoir not only discourages this kind of treatment, but encourages understanding, with quotes like “The sex of a person lies more in his mind than in his body” and “For far too long, adults have underestimated … children and their significance as human beings,” this short epilogue written in 1907 seems positively modern. I find the positive messages that can be attained from reading “Memoirs” is vastly above “Herculine Barbin.”

Quote: "The sex of a person lies more in his mind than in his body, or to express myself in more medical terms, it lies more in the brain than in the genitals."

Snapchat caption: Good old Aunt Magnesia

Additionally, if you are looking for a positive story, “Memoirs” has a happy ending, while the memoirs to primarily focus on Baer’s “maiden years” the end is optimistic and hopeful for the future and, more than that, Hermann Simon has been able to uncover the trajectory of Karl Baer’s life through the lucky coincidence of his mother knowing Karl Baer and his wife when she was a child, followed by years of painstaking research. His afterward to the 2007 edition is an excellent supplement and he takes you back through the memoir as he uncovers the reality behind what Baer disguised. 

The book can be found here.

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Snap of book page. "There were at least six printings of the book after 1907, followed by two silent film versions... Only the earlier film has been preserved, although at some point in time, the opening credits from the later film were attached to it."

Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews

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[Edit: Originally published April 1, 2017]

Some Assembly Required is a Trans Narrative. It encompasses all the aspects someone might expect if they are familiar with other trans books or if they have a passing awareness of trans people. These books have value, and I am hesitant to be critical of any trans books in the state of things—however, they may not have as much to offer if one has already read another Trans Narrative book. 

An issue with the Trans Narrative story always being spotlighted is that it does little to question gender; it simply implies that biology made a mistake that we should fix medically and move on with our lives. It does not dissect gender roles; it just asks politely for a little room for those having trouble fitting into them until they can perfect the art. This book does improve upon some tropes by featuring multiple and non-straight trans characters. However, Arin assumes the gender of everyone he meets by their appearance. As someone who would be misgendered by this author despite his intended message, this is saddening.

The language is simple and voice relatable, making it appropriate for high school or middle school students. I would ask that educators diversify their material, and include other trans experiences and gender theory as well, including those that are non-binary, non-white, etc. (For a college class, check out Gender Outlaw by Kate Bernstein!) I think this book could be so much more useful with good discussion questions. Question perceptions, not just if the book has been read!

Seeing your usual narrative—“wrong body” “wrong parts” and so much labeling of ‘boy’ activities and clothes exhausts. I want more than this. I want to talk about why clothes are gendered and how arbitrary that is, about why people force these roles. But many do feel this way, and it’s authentic for Arin. The window into discovering one’s transness as an American kid rings impressively true to mine. It’s just a small window, where I’d like a glass house.

Some details: There are several passages where he berates girls and femininity, which is normal for a child forced into those roles, but there’s no indication that he’s grown from this later. There is also a line drag performers that come across as derogatory in a similar way, and some mentions of Native people that needed a bit more care.

 For someone not exposed to many resources, this could be lifesaving and educational.  At the same time, I think we should be mindful to center other lenses along with this one and question the binary that tramples trans people in the first place.

You can find this book on Amazon here.

This is a guest review by @Bovastic, who is available as an accuracy consultant/sensitivity reader at bovastic.mail@gmail.com or on Twitter. Areas of expertise are listed on Twitter. For characters with other mental conditions or certain life experiences, please contact and ask.

Christopher and his Kind: 1929-1939 by Christopher Isherwood

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[Edit: Originally published April 28, 2016]

Christopher and his Kind, a memoir detailing Christopher Isherwood’s time in traveling abroad from England, is delightfully frank and honest. Christopher Isherwood has no qualms in saying which parts are unreliable because he doesn’t remember them or how the opinion of his younger self might be biased. He treats young Christopher Isherwood as if he is a different person from the Isherwood who is now writing this memoir, and in a sense he is. 

I found it fascinating the way he talked about how he fictionalized the people that he met, particularly Jean Ross who was the inspiration for beloved character Sally Bowles. This ties in with Isherwood acknowledging himself as an unreliable narrator. He remarks on several occasions in the book that over the years what was Jean Ross and what was Sally Bowles has become blurred.

The queer history that this book provides was wonderful. I was particularly intrigued by the Hirschfeld Institute. It’s something I definitely want to research further. Aside from that it was a wonderful glimpse into how homosexuality was thought of and how gay and bisexual men (though they weren’t called that in the book) lived their lives, and how despite the tendency for history to get straight-washed, queer people have always been there and will always be there.

There is also a movie of the same name, starting Matt Smith, and while it is good, it doesn’t really give you the full feel of Isherwood’s time traveling or the full nature of his relationship with Heinz, or Isherwood’s other friends for that matter. On it’s own the movie is good, and if you’ve seen it but haven’t read the book you should go out and get the book ASAP.

The book can be found here.

Related Reviews: A Single Man, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Goodbye to Berlin, Queer, There, and Everywhere

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