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Most of what we know about Barbin comes from her later memoirs. Herculine Adélaîde Barbin was born in Saint-Jean-d'Angély in France in 1838. She was regarded as a girl and raised as such; her family referred to her as Alexina. Her family was poor but she gained a charity scholarship to study in the school of an Ursuline convent.
According to her account, she had a crush on an aristocratic female friend in school. She regarded herself as unattractive but sometimes slipped into her friend's room at night and was sometimes punished for that. However, her studies were successful and in 1856, at the age of seventeen she was sent to Le Chateau to study to become a teacher. There she fell in love with one of the teachers.
Although Barbin was in puberty, she had not begun to menstruate and remained flat chested. The hairs on her upper lip and cheeks were noticeable.
In 1857 Barbin received a position as an assistant teacher in a girls' school. She fell in love with another teacher, Sara, and Barbin demanded that only she should dress her. Her ministrations turned into caresses and they became lovers. Eventually rumors about their affair began to circulate.
Barbin, although sick her whole life, began to suffer excruciating pains. When a doctor examined her, he was shocked and asked that she should be sent away from the school, but she stayed.
Eventually, the devoutly Catholic Barbin confessed to Jean-François-Anne Landriot, the Bishop of La Rochelle. She asked him permission to break the confessional silence in order to send for a doctor to examine her. When Dr. Chesnet did so in 1860, he discovered that even if Barbin had a small vagina, she was bodily masculine and had a very small penis and testicles inside her body. In modern terms, she had "male pseudohermaphroditism".
Reassignment as male
A later legal decision declared official that Barbin was male. She left her lover and her job, changed her name to Abel Barbin and was briefly mentioned in the press. She moved to Paris where she lived in poverty and wrote her memoirs, reputedly as a part of therapy. In the memoirs, Barbin would use female pronouns when writing about her life prior to sexual redesignation and male pronouns following the declaration. Nevertheless, she clearly regarded herself as punished, and "disinherited", subject to a "ridiculous inquisition".
In February 1868, the concierge of Barbin's house in rue de l'École-de-Médecine found her dead in her home. She had committed suicide by inhaling gas from her coal gas stove. Her memoirs were found beside her bed.
Dr. Regnier reported the death, recovered the memoirs and performed an autopsy. Later he gave the memoirs to Auguste Ambroise Tardieu, who published excerpts as "Histoire et souvenirs d'Alexina B." ("The Story and Memoirs of Alexina B.") in his book Question médico-légale de l'identité dans ses rapport avec les vices de conformation des organes sexuels, contenant les souvenirs et impressions d'un individu dont le sexe avait été méconnu ("Forensics of Identity Involving Deformities of the Sexual Organs, Along With the Memoirs and Impressions of an Individual Whose Sex Was Misidentified") (Paris: J.-B. Ballière et Fils, 1872). The excerpts were translated to English in 1980.
Michel Foucault discovered the memoirs in the 1970s while conducting research at the French Department of Public Hygiene. He had the journals republished as Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-century French Hermaphrodite. In his edition, Foucault also included a set of medical reports, legal documents, and newspaper articles, as well as a short story adaptation by Oscar Panizza.
Modern commentaries and references
Barbin's memoirs inspired the French film The Mystery of Alexina. and Jeffrey Eugenides in his book Middlesex treats concurrent themes, as does Virginia Woolf in her book, Orlando: A Biography. Judith Butler refers to Foucault's commentary on Barbin at various points in her 1990 Gender Trouble, including her chapter "Foucault, Herculine, and the Politics of Sexual Discontinuity."
Barbin appears as a character in the play A Mouthful of Birds by Caryl Churchill and David Lan. Barbin also appears as a character in the play Hidden: A Gender by Kate Bornstein. Herculine, a full-length play based on the memoirs of Barbin, is by Garrett Heater. Kira Obolensky also wrote a two-act stage adaptation entitled The Adventures of Herculina.
In 2014, a manuscript entitled Dear Herculine by Aaron Apps won the 2014 Sawtooth Poetry Prize from Ahsahta Press.
The birthday of Herculine Barbin is marked in Intersex Day of Remembrance on 8 November.
Sources and further reading
- Barbin, Herculine (1980). Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-century French Hermaphrodite. introd. Michel Foucault, trans. Richard McDougall. New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-394-50821-1.
- Dreger, Alice Domurat (Spring 1995). "Doubtful Sex: The Fate of the Hermaphrodite in Victorian Medicine". Victorian Studies. 38 (3): 335–370. ISSN 0042-5222. PMID 11609024.
- Lafrance, Mélisse (2002). "Uncertain Erotic: A Foucauldian Reading of Herculine Barbin dite Alexina B". SITES: the Journal of Contemporary French Studies. 6 (1): 119–131. doi:10.1080/10260210290021815. ISSN 1026-0218.
- Leroi, Armand Marie (2003). Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body. New York: Viking. pp. 217–222. ISBN 0-670-03110-0.
- Tardieu, Ambroise (1872). Question médico-légale de l'identité dans ses rapport avec les vices de conformation des organes sexuels, contenant les souvenirs et impressions d'un individu dont le sexe avait été méconnu (in French). Paris: J.-B. Ballière et Fils. pp. 48–159.
- (French) Adelaïde-Herculine Barbin, Mes-souvenirs.
- Commentary about the memoirs in the PubMed Central.
- (Spanish) Herculine Barbin. Hermafroditismo y condena.