Writing about Sensitive Issues - Inter-gender, by Kathleen Jones

(Warning: this post contains explicit content which some people may find shocking.)

Tackling sensitive issues in a novel is difficult - yet, if we're to write about the full spectrum of human life then we are going to have to take one on at some point in our writing careers.  Personally, I don't believe that the novel is the right medium to conduct a crusade - political or social.  Virginia Woolf said that we should never write fiction that encouraged one to 'write a cheque' or 'join a society',  but that doesn't mean that we can't address political or social issues. Dickens revealed the horrors of the Victorian underworld, and Catherine Cookson wrote about 20th century prejudices against illegitimacy, class and colour - there are dozens more examples. 

I have never, in my life, ever set out to write 'about' an 'issue' in anything but a feature article or media documentary.  But my latest novel, The Centauress, tackles the very difficult subject of gender identity. Every year, one in every two thousand babies is born with some kind of gender anomaly. Some of these are quite small and may not get picked up unless there are problems with fertility or they have to take chromosome tests for international athletics.  There are perfectly formed girls out there with XY genes.  But it’s the physical manifestations that cause the most problems and, because all foetuses start out female and the Y chromosome is only triggered by a ‘wash’ of testosterone in the womb at about 6 weeks, variations in what we consider ‘the norm’ are common. 

Historically cases of ‘indeterminate gender’ were usually solved by doing a bit of surgical trimming and bringing the child up as a girl.  When I was researching the birth registers in Scotland to trace Catherine Cookson’s father I found an ‘Alexander Davies’ who seemed very promising - born in the right area at the right time with the right name.  But when I looked at the register, the baby had been re-registered a few weeks later as a girl ‘Alexandra’.  The registrar told me that it was not unusual.

A modern ‘gender assignment’ consultant explained what he called the ‘lop and chop option’ this way - ‘It’s always been easier to dig a hole than to put up a pole’. (The casual terminology made me shudder.) The creation of female genitalia was easier than its reverse and there was a belief among doctors that children were not actually gendered until the second year of their lives, so that if they were dressed in girl’s clothes and given dolls they would grow up to be (almost) perfectly normal young women. 

In the USA there were a number of cases where for various reasons (some involving circumcision) babies with damaged penises were turned into girls.  A consultant called John Money made research into these children his life’s work.  But his belief that physical cosmetic surgery and cultural influence could make a boy into a girl or vice versa didn’t work out.  Some of his patients suffered mental health problems, refused to conform, and some even reverted to the clothes and occupations of their original gender, though they had never been told what this was.  It is only in the last 20 years that more research has been done into the gendering of the mind before birth - that we are male and female and all the shades in between before we even leave the womb.  Plastic surgeons these days try to fit the body to the mind.  This is very new and very controversial. 

In some extreme cases, babies are born with the complete genitalia of both male and female.  We call these hermaphrodites - the union of Hermes and Aphrodite.  This has been well documented since written records began and there is a lot of art-work to confirm it too.  Some of these drawings and paintings were in the records of ‘freak-shows’ and in 17th and 18th century erotica.  But there is one beautiful marble carving (a copy of a Greek original) in the Louvre.  It’s called ‘Sleeping Hermaphrodite’ and clearly shows the beautiful body of a woman with male genitalia.  

Hermaphroditism has always interested me, since I was a young child of 8 or 9 and my uncle was divorcing his wife.  My aunt had run off with another woman and it came up in court (a doctor gave evidence) that this ‘other woman’ was in fact a hermaphrodite.  This scandal made the papers and, as children, we got quite used to finding the Sunday papers with holes where the adults had cut out the bits we weren’t supposed to read. 

Later I read ‘Herculine Barbin’ - the memoirs of a 19th century woman brought up as a girl, but told when she was a teenager that she was a man.  She couldn’t cope with the gender confusion and eventually committed suicide. It’s recently been re-issued edited by Michael Foucault. 
Herculine Barbin 1868
And then in Italy I met the sculptor Fiore de Henriquez, born a hermaphrodite in the years just after the first world war when attitudes to any kind of sexual difference were quite medieval.  Fiore was quite open about her dual gender, talking about it freely - a most extraordinary woman with a huge personality - and someone I found utterly fascinating.  She was the subject of a biography by my friend Jan Marsh - called ‘Art and Androgyny’ - and there's a documentary film being made about her life by US film maker Richard Whymark.

When I wrote The Centauress, I didn’t set out to write a book about indeterminate gender.  It was just that when the story formed in my head, one of the central dilemmas (and the tragedy) of the main character’s life was being born between sexes at a time when it wasn’t very well understood.  As an adult woman, after the failure of her first serious love affair, Zenobia paints herself as an ambiguous Centauress - in Shakespeare’s words from King Lear, ‘Down from the waist they’re centaurs/Though women all above’. The figure of the Centauress was Zenobia’s image of the body she had been born with - neither one thing nor the other, but a merging of both.

Image of Centauress taken from Etruscan pottery
In the novel, my other main character, Alex, has to research this aspect of Zenobia’s life in order to understand why her life has been so turbulent and her relationships so chaotic.  In particular, she needs to find out why Zenobia’s mother hated her so much. Their relationship had been mutually destructive, poisoned by blame and shame.  Zenobia’s friend and companion, Concetta, tells Alex that ‘There is no hatred like that between a mother and daughter, because there are also such deep ties – it is a hatred that has roots that curl themselves around the heart and strangle it.’ But Zenobia’s mother had been unable to cope with the shame of giving birth to a child that was imperfect.  It was a blow to her own femininity. Zenobia blames her mother for attempting to turn her into a ‘normal’ girl.

I grew up at a time when feminism was attempting to tell us that men and women were basically the same and that any admission of difference was to give substance to the argument that women were inferior because they were different from men.  But I never believed that. We are different - we think differently and we have different skills.  This should be valued, not denied.  Tennyson (not exactly a feminist) once wrote that ‘there is no equality that does not take account of difference’ - and he was right.  Gender difference is only one kind of difference used to put people down. 

Anne Fausto-Sterling,  Professor of Women's studies and Biology at Brown University, and author of The Five Sexes,  writes about the complexities of gender very intelligently, if anyone wants to know more about the subject.  

This novel has allowed me to think quite a lot about the way that writers and artists, both male and female think and work.  I like to believe that our different perspectives illuminate the whole; male and female together making one.   My character Zenobia says proudly ‘I can see both sides, because, you see, I am both sides’.

The Centauress was published on the 21st April and  is available from Amazon.co.uk

"Bereaved biographer Alex Forbes goes to war-ravaged Croatia to research the life of celebrity artist Zenobia de Braganza and finds herself at the centre of a family conflict over a disputed inheritance.  At the Kaštela Visoko Alex uncovers a mutilated photograph, stolen letters and a story of indeterminate gender, passion and betrayal.  But can she believe what she is being told? In order to discover the truth about Zenobia, Alex travels to Istria, Venice, New York and London and, in working through the narrative of Zenobia’s life, Alex begins to make sense of her own and finds joy and love in a new relationship."

Kathleen Jones blogs at 'A Writer's Life'
Her website is at www.kathleenjones.co.uk


Lee said…
A very timely concern, and one which doesn't quite yield to the binary approach we humans seem to favour - your 'both sides'. SFonal writers are doing lots of interesting things regarding gender at the moment. (Leckie's Ancillary Justice has just won the Clarke Award.) The Amazon sample of your novel is so well written that I must see how you proceed!
julia jones said…
How completely fascinating! Thanks Kathleen
JO said…
What an interesting post - and the critical line - Gender difference is only one kind of difference used to put people down - seems to me the crux of it. Sad that we have to find scapegoats - I know it makes for great novels, but I still wish we weren't locked in the politics of the playground.
Kathleen Jones said…
Yes Lee, the more we know about gender the more we have to acknowledge that there are more than two sides, more colours than black and white. The doctor I talked to said 'Nature loves variety - society hates it'.
Thanks Jo and Julia - we do need to get our attitudes to difference into the 21st century rather than (at best) 19th century and (at worst) medieval.
CallyPhillips said…
Very interesting. I've never really been convinced that physical gender is any reflection of mind gender anyway... but this gets me into hot water with feminists too I'm afraid - I don't think there is a strict male/female difference, I just think there are a lot of differences and it's just weariesome that people use sex and/or gender as a way of demarcating anything (just as stupid as race or IQ) Diversity is the natural order and categorising a form of oppression (in my opinion) We are all just people (including animals!!) in my view and no one more or less than any other - until we start trying to set hierarchies including the dreaded bell curve! Rant over.
Kathleen Jones said…
I agree with your rant Cally - diversity is the natural order!I hate this human obsession with pigeon holing everything into strict categories - especially after wrestling with the KDP categories for fiction. AAAAAAgh .....
Lydia Bennet said…
fascinating post Kathleen, a vital subject and provoking much discussion and contemplation. while it seems there is an innate awareness of one's gender, it's another thing to decide men are this, women are that, boys like this, girls like that, and then judge people according to whether they fit these largely cultural stereotypes. such horrible cruelty was done in the past to intersex children, but of course at the same time they were performing ECT (and still are, disgracefully), and lobotomies and other horror of the 'doctors know best, women are all hysterical' school of thought.
Ann Evans said…
Excellent thought provoking post Kathleen, and good luck with the new book.

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