Whose Body is it anyway? Hermaphrodites, Gays, and Jews in N. O. Body's Germany
Sander L. Gilman
"N.O. Body" is a most appropriate pseudonym for Karl M. Baer (1885-1956) to have used when he sat down to pen his autobiography, which appeared in 1907. For being "nobody" was his way of seeing his body: it was neither male nor female. It was doubly foreign ("nobody" is English rather than German) as it was Jewish as well as German. This is how he imagined his past life raised as a woman, Martha Baer, in a Jewish family in Imperial Germany. But it is "nobody" that Odysseus tricks the Cyclops to answering when asked who has harmed him—"Who has hurt you?" "Nobody," the blinded giant responds. In his autobiography Baer is simultaneously the clever trickster but also the damaged giant.
On its surface Baer's autobiography is a remarkable fin-de-siècle document of "hermaphrodism," as the Berlin sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) notes in his afterword. Its subject suffered from false gender assignment because of the apparent ambiguity of his genitalia as an infant. He was registered and treated as a "female" child rather than a "male" child, an error of assignment that became evident only with puberty. He was a "pseudohermaphrodite," to use the terminology of the day, as his body was hormonally and psychologically gendered male, even though his genitalia seemed at first glance ambiguous. Sex was defined by the appearance of the body and was dimorphic—there were men and women. Any one who was neither or both was seen as pathological.
The central argue of the autobiography is expressed on its opening page: "one may raise a healthy boy in as womanish manner as one wishes and a female creature in as mannish; never will this cause their senses to remain forever reversed." No confusion about gender can exist except, as is the case here, through the fuzzy ineptitude of the physician who at Baer's birth in 1885 (not 1884 as in the text) stated that "on superficial inspection the shape makes a feminine appearance, ergo we have a girl before us." But the autobiography shows that this was never the case. Baer was always a male, even when treated as a female. As Hirschfeld notes in his afterward: "the sex of a person lies more in his mind than in his body." For Baer there was no ambiguity in his sense of discomfort as a woman caused by the outward appearance of his genitalia. His desires were "male"—from the games he wished to play to the women with whom he fell in love. But he had been assigned the gender role of a woman, which made his masculine desire seem "perverse" to him. The argument of the autobiography is that male children, however raised or treated, remain masculine in their intrinsic identity. This was very much against the tendency of the time and again against the practice of the late twentieth century. Today this sounds extraordinarily prescient.
After the 1960s gender reassignment surgery of children with "ambiguous genitalia" followed the view of scientists such as the Johns Hopkins psychologist John Money who argued that it was culture not nature that defined gender. It became usual to alter the external genitalia of babies with ambiguous sexuality to the female because of its greater surgical simplicity. These children were treated with hormones and raised as females. Over the past decade a substantial literature argues that Baer and Hirschfeld were right and Money was wrong. Gender is imprinted in as well as on the body; "anatomy is not destiny." The primary case used by Money as his proof of the successful raising of a boy as a girl was that of David Reimer (known in popular culture as the case of John and Joan). He was one of two identical twins, whose botched circumcision in 1967 lead to the amputation of his penis at eight months and his being raised as a girl. Money announced this as proof that culture was the sole determinant of gender. At 25 Reimer demanded to have his sexual identity as a man reconstituted. He had always felt himself to be male even in his culturally and hormonally reinforced role as a woman. By the early 21st century he had become a media darling, appearing on "Oprah." In May 2004, he committed suicide at the age of 38. His death was read as proof of how wrong Money was.
Reimer's life rebutted, as the first major reassessment of the case noted, the primary assumptions that every one is psychosexually neutral at birth, and that all healthy psychosexual development is dependent upon the appearance of the genitals. This view, espoused by Money, argued from a set of assumption based on the existence of hermaphrodites. He assumed they were ungendered at birth. But who are these undifferentiated hermaphrodites? Do they not have a gendered identity from the very beginning of their lives? But is not their understanding of the meaning of gender also shaped by the historical world in which they are born? Certainly this was the case for the world of the five-year old "Martha" (Karl) Baer, who like Reimer, much preferred the games and toys of boys to those of girls even though the world treated him as it would a little girl.
The publication of Baer's autobiography in Germany is part of a fixation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with this surprisingly malleable category of the "hermaphrodite." The "freakish" body, the body whose physiology did not reflect societal norms, has always fascinated European culture. From Petronius' representation in his Satyricon of hermaphrodites in first-century Rome to Velazquez's dwarf center stage in the Spanish court portrait of Las Meninas (1656) to the fantasies about sexual desire in Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Europeans have stressed physical difference as a manner of defining the ever-changing boundaries of the "normal" and "healthy" body. Central to all of these representations was the need to "see" the physical difference of the body. Difference had to be physical even if the fascination was with the unseeable (and in these terms unknowable) aspects of what makes human beings different. Thus ruminating about sexual desire and practices, such as homosexuality, which was in the process of becoming the subject of the medical gaze in the nineteenth century, did not have the same empirical claim as observing physical difference, such as that of the hermaphrodite.
In the late nineteenth century there was an explosion of autobiographical accounts of sexual difference that attempted to translate a fascination with behavioral or social aspects of sexual difference into physiological terms. One of the central metaphors for this difference was that of the "hermaphrodite." Virtually all of these attempts were cast as part of a new "medical" (or "forensic") attempt to understand the psyche of "perversion." Homosexuals could only be judged by their acts; there seemed to be no way of "seeing" their difference in contrast to the healthy, normal body. How could one identify the homosexual? Could he (and at this point the pervert was always male) be as visible as the hermaphrodite? In a medical model the homosexual were inherently different from the healthy, heterosexual, but was this difference an intrinsic one or could any one be or become homosexual?
In the 1860s the German lawyer Karl Ulrichs provided an alternative model for a nonjudgmental account of "uranism" or homosexuality. He hoped this would free the homosexual from the moral and/or medical taint that accompanied any representation of "perverse" sexual attraction and/or activity in the evolving medical model. He sought to defuse the legal status of the homosexual as sexual criminal while avoiding the medicalization of homosexuality as a perversion. One can add that liberals such as Richard Kraft-Ebbing in his 1886 Psychopathia Sexualis also wished to free the homosexual from the charges of criminal sexual activity or moral depravity by medicalizing it and thus providing therapy rather that prison as the alternative. Ulrichs' argument was that the homosexual (and his references are exclusively to male same sex desire and activity) was a "third sex," a natural alternative to the "two" sexes, male and female.
By the end of the century physicians such as Magnus Hirschfeld applied the model of the third sex and sought a biological rather than a theoretical model. Of special interest to Hirschfeld were thus the "intermediate cases" of sexuality, the model for which was the hermaphrodite, who according to these accounts was both female and male and thus neither male nor female.
Hirschfeld and the sexologists of the 1890s found it necessary to turn to the broader medical audience as well as the broader public with case material to prove their argument. While Michel Foucault had to excavate his famous mid-nineteenth century case of the nineteenth-century French hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin from the Parisian archives of the Department of Public Health, it is much less difficult to find analogous cases of sexual difference in Germany after the 1890s. This literature explodes in the medical literature of the day and it seeps into general public discourse quite quickly. Thus the autobiographical literature on homosexuality, cast in the model of the "third sex" uses the hermaphrodite as its concrete analogy for German consumption. Thus the pioneer (and long lived) sexologist Havelock Ellis published the first volume of his studies on sexuality collaboratively with the writer John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) in Germany in 1896. Symonds' autobiographical account of "this question of Greek love in modern life" was the core of this work, which was published only the next year in Great Britain to the horror of his friends. Among other texts Ellis included is a detailed summary of "Ulrichs's Views" on homosexuality as an appendix to the German original (and anonymously in subsequent English editions.
By 1900 there were hundreds of autobiographical accounts of sexual "anomalies," including hermaphrodism, available in the technical literature and some in the more popular literature. Magnus Hirschfeld's volume on "Berlin's Third Sex," with massive citations from autobiographies, appeared as volume three in the original urban sociological series of Metropolitan Documents, widely sold in German bookstores prior to WWI. This series, edited by Hans Ostwald, formed the basis for much of the urban sociological studies of social groups in the 1910s and beyond. Most, like the Hirschfeld and the Ellis volume, cut and pasted these into "scientific" discourses about sexual difference as first-hand "proofs" of the nature of sexual difference. Here the hermaphrodite constantly served as the model for sexual difference. The "third sex" was like the hermaphrodite in that it was to be found in nature.
This notion that the hermaphrodite can serve as the model for an understanding of male homosexuality is not merely an idiosyncrasy of the turn of the century. Michel Foucault writes in his History of Sexuality that: "homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy into a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species." This takes place in the 1890s, the world in which Karl Baer lived.
As a literary trope the modern notion of hermaphrodism as metaphor for the impermanence of sexual dimorphism takes place at the same time. In 1891 we find a "magic seed" in Archibald Ganter and Fergus Redmond's novel (and then a remarkable successful play) A Florida Enchantment that transforms the protagonist and her servant into men. But Victorian and early twentieth-century erotica often turned on the confusion of sexual roles whether in the form of androgynous characters or transvestism. Thus in "Frank" and I the reader discovers that the "female" lover of a young man turns out to be male and Miss High-Heels the hero Dennis Evelyn Beryl is transformed by his sister into a woman. Such purposeful sexual confusion is also at the core of Agatha Christie's early novel The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). It is, of course, only in 1928 with Virginia Woolf's Orlando that the full promise of the metaphor of hermaphrodism for the instability of sexuality identity is played out. After that it becomes a commonplace in the literature of the twentieth century.
In Germany, as in the rest of Europe, there had been a steady stream of medical studies interested in hermaphrodism throughout the nineteenth century. But it is with Magnus Hirschfeld's work in 1890s the model character of homosexuality was stressed in such studies. By then the hermaphrodite had become, not only a model for, but also the etiology of, homosexuality. At the beginning of the twentieth century Hirschfield published a long series of essays by Franz von Neugebauer (1856-1914) in his Yearbook of Sexual Intermediate Stages in the 1900s.
Neugebauer was the most important commentator on the biological nature of hermaphrodism within Hirschfeld's model during this period. He argued that all children were born "bisexual" and that homosexuality was an inherent quality of brain development. But he was also convinced that women who appeared to be male were less likely to have truly bisexual characteristic that a man who desired to appear as a woman. (The rationale is clear: why would a high status individual such as a male desire to be a low status individual such as a woman. The reverse is clear: there is a social advantage to the latter but never to the former.) A gynecologist in Warsaw and chief of staff at the Evangelical Hospital there, Neugebauer had systematically collected "930 observations of hermaphrodism in human beings; 38 of these were cases which had come under my own observation, and the rest I found dispersed in ancient and modern literature." In his work he rethought the nosology of hermaphrodism. However following Hirschfeld's model, he also understood to the social consequences of such biological categorization. He clearly links hermaphrodism and homosexuality, as does Baer's image of the childhood sexual exploration and his young adult sense that he might be a lesbian: "It occurred to me alone, that I perhaps felt in that way." As Neugebauer argued this is not an unusual sense of sexual confusion:
The male or female character of the genetic sense of pseudohermaphrodites depends very often on the sort of environment in which they are brought up, that is to say, upon whether they are educated as boys or girls; it must be set down entirely to the influence of suggestion if a male hermaphrodite, owing to mistaken sex brought up as a girl, afterwards shows a feminine genetic sense, seeks to attract men and betrays perverse homosexual inclinations, and if when the mistake in sex is discovered he energetically opposes every attempt to make him abandon girls' petticoats, their way of life, and his feminine predilections and occupations, and if he declines to assume male attire and change his social position, and appear in future as a man. Such homosexual inclinations acquired by suggestion have in some cases been only temporary, and the male, though brought up by mistake as a female, has, sooner or later, recognized his virility, and has not hesitated to demand his social and sexual rights sometimes somewhat abruptly. There, have been instances in which a male person, recognizing that his true sexual position had been misunderstood, has adopted male attire without consulting anyone, and without giving notice of the fact to the magistrate or any other authority; one such person found a mistress whom he put in the family way, and only demanded the adjustment of his social position on the evidence of that pregnancy—an incontestable proof of his manhood. In other cases the genetic sense with homosexual desire has persisted during the whole life of an hermaphrodite, whose true sex has been misunderstood; there have even been instances in which hermaphrodites of the male sex brought up as girls, have, then, too late, their true sex has been recognized, with all possible insistence demanded castration.
But this can lead to a sense of alienation if one does not resolve the question of sexual identity:
The consciousness of being neither man nor woman, the constant and shameful fear that the malformation, though concealed with the utmost care, may some day betray itself and leave the sufferer to be the scorn and derision of those about him, are perpetually upsetting the mental balance and psychotic repose of the unfortunate pseudohermaphrodite, who racks his brain demanding why he should be so afflicted, and seeking some way out of his miserable social position. Not daring to confide in anyone the poor hybrid passes his days and nights dwelling upon his lot; feeling excluded from the society of either men or women he cultivates solitude and avoids intimacy of any kind with anyone; he passes his nights in agony and tears; his health gives way, and he becomes suspicious, distrustful, shy, savage, irritable, irascible, vindictive, violent, and impulsive to an extent that may drive him to crime, or he becomes moody, apathetic, and melancholy, till at last he ends his days in self-destruction.
In Imperial Berlin male cross dressers could be arrested just because they appeared different. By Weimar Germany such cross dressers (not necessarily either homosexuals or hermaphrodites) were given identity cards to allow them to present themselves in public. Such a social danger of mis-seeing haunted the world in which Baer grew up. What would happen if one looked inappropriate for ones sex?
On December 2, 1891, a gendarme arrested a young girl of 19 on the platform of the railway station at Pilsen, on the suspicion of being a man disguised as a woman. It was in vain that the prisoner showed her personal papers, in which she was described as Marie Karfiol, born on such a day, at such place, and of such parents. In spite of her protestations, she was taken to the mayor's court, where medical evidence proved that there had been an error of sex, and that Marie K. was a male hypospadiac. She then admitted that at the time of her birth there had been some difficulty in determining her sex, but she had been brought up as a girl. At the time of her puberty suspicions as to the real state of the case had led to her being taken to see the mayor of her village and the priest; but no further action had been taken. Later on she abandoned herself to her fate, being ashamed to speak to anyone of her doubts. Her pretty hair was cut off and she was dressed in men's clothes; but in her novel attire she had a very timid and wild appearance.
Thus the anxiety focused on the feminized appearance of the male. This runs like a red thread through Baer's autobiography. His female schoolmates will not play with him because their teachers call him a boy; equally telling is the fact that "street urchins also shouted 'Norbert' after me": he was seen as "something odd" in public. When the older Baer looses his passport on a trip to Hungary as a newspaper correspondent the police see "her" as a disguised man, which is "very suspicious." It is only the fact that a passerby recognizes her from her portrait in a woman's magazine that rescues Baer. Being seen as different on the street was dangerous, especially if the assumption was that you were a feminized man.
Cesare Taruffi's classic monograph on hermaphrodism, originally published in Italian in 1902, appeared in 1903 in Germany. Here the notion that Hirschfeld had stressed—of the hermaphrodite as model case was spelled out in explicit detail. The model is always the feminization of the male as an answer to sexual dimorphism and sexual identity. Baer's life as he accounts it after his transformation is that of a feminized man not that of a mannish woman. "Feminization" is here to be understood both in its general, cultural sense and in its very specifically medical sense. "Feminization" or the existence of the "feminized man" is a form of "external pseudo-hermaphrodism." It is not true hermaphrodism, but rather the sharing of external, secondary sexual characteristics, such as the shape of the body or the tone of the voice. The concept begins in the middle of the nineteenth century with the introduction of the term: "infemminsce," to feminize, to describe the supposed results of the castration of the male. By the 1870s, the term is used to describe the "feminisme" of the male through the effects of other diseases, such as tuberculosis. Here Baer's fantasy that the dropping of his voice was a sign of tuberculosis as "consumptives are often hoarse." One can see him reading in the medical (or popular medical) literature of day looking for a pathology that would explain his growing masculinization. He "coughed, suffered from back aches" and "in [his] lively imagination though [he] felt all the symptoms mentioned in the book." Indeed he later uses a feigned case of "consumption" to return home from his first job as an apprentice in a banking house "as my lungs had become weak." But what he was simply doing was reversing the model: diseases such as tuberculosis feminizined men according to the literature of the time, precisely the problem from which he actually suffered. He has a need to see his state as an expression of a somatic pathology, but one that could be treated. "Feminization" was the direct result of actual castration or the physiological equivalent, such as intensely debilitating illness. It reshaped the body.
Baer's autobiography is remarkable as much for its mode masking its subjects' identity as it is for its candor. But Baer does something quite unique. He redefines his ancestry as "French" in order to explain his social difference:
Our lineage is not German. Our forefathers came from France. My family is very old and proud of its family tree, whose beginnings reach back as far as the sixteenth century. For generations however, the descendants of this old family had moved up to the heights of existence, only to soon descend to the middling life of small shopkeepers.
"French" was also understood in Baer's time as a racial category as well as a political one. Thus the arch-racist French Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882), widely read in Germany, argued the inherent superiority of the "Aryans" [Germans] over the "Celts"[French]. Being "French" in Germany is a racial label that is mirrored in the body: "Our outward appearance alone is enough to easily distinguish us from the other inhabitants of Bergheim: black or brown eyes, brown wavy hair, sharply-defined southern European features are seldom found among the Saxons and Franconians of those mountain valleys." These "French" bodies seem to be just as visible as is the odd masculine body of the hermaphrodite.
Baer's French "mask" is transparent but it is also unnecessary as there is no reason in the argument of his autobiography for his identity to be anything but that of a hermaphrodite. It is the "somber grey [that] hung over our path through life." And yet there was clearly a need to stress another category of difference that also impacted on his understanding of his own body. As Hermann Simon has brilliantly shown in his detective work identifying Baer as the author of N.O. Body's autobiography, Baer was not only a Jew but was able to create a meaningful life for himself as an officer of the Berlin lodges of the Jewish fraternal organization of the B'nai Brith (the Brothers of the Circumcision). That group seemed to have demanded neither educational certification nor birth records, as Baer fears at the close of his account. His absence of any formal education as male meant that his social role was truly damaged. He stresses this himself. It was sufficient for them that he was a member of the Jewish community.
Baer becomes "French" rather than Jewish in his account in 1907 because the sexual implications of being Jewish clear to him. Just as he transforms all of the Jewish holidays and practices into "Catholic" ones in his account of his early life, as Simon shows, so too does he desire to transform his Jewish body into a French one. (Being Catholic in late nineteenth-century Berlin at the time of the Kulturkampf against the Vatican was almost as exotic as being Jewish.) That the Jew was an anomalous sexual case was part of his world. For Baer and for the world in which he loved, the "damaged" genitalia of the male Jew, damaged through circumcision though there is a debate whether circumcision can be inherited after generations, meant that the male Jew is already neither truly male nor actually female. He becomes, to use Ulrichs' coinage, "a third sex."
It is clear that the model that Ulrichs employed to characterize the homosexual as beyond the dimorphism of traditional sexual identity is quite analogous to the basic argument that Theodor Herzl used to establish Zionism. If the Jews were inherently "Oriental," the basic argument within the Berlin anti-Semitism struggle of the 1880s, then the Jews should recognize their "oriental" nature, leave Europe, and return to Palestine. It is not a blemish but a recognition of their natural state. Being different in both cases is transformed from a pathological and stigmatizing identity to a positive one.
It is in the physiology of the male Jew that the myth of Jewish sexual difference is located. Circumcision, however, is not a powerful enough myth; the world of European anti-Semitism creates the notion that male Jews menstruate. Menstruation is the sign of womanhood in Baer's autobiography. It is "a dark matter" as it had to do with "sexuality, and because one was then an adult." All of the girl's in Baer's school "were 'it' already" so Baer too "arrived at school, beaming. 'It' was there." This "lie" continued for "ten years, in many countries and among strange customs, and it caused me many a worry." Doubly so, for had Baer read further into the nineteenth-century medical literature on the topic of male menstruation, by writers such as F. A. Forel and W. D. Halliburton, he would have found a fascination with male menstruation in regard to the problem of hermaphroditism as a sign of bisexuality as prominent in the nineteenth century. Paul Albrecht in Hamburg argued for the existence of "male menstruation" which was periodic and which mimicked the menstrual cycle of the female through the release of white corpuscles into the urine. The sexologist Paul Näcke provided a detailed discussion of the question of "male menstruation" and its relationship to the problem of male periodicity. Näcke cited among others our old friend Havelock Ellis who had been collecting material on this question for years. With the rise of modern sexology at the close of the nineteenth century, especially in the writings of Magnus Hirschfeld, male menstruation came to hold a very special place in the "proofs" for the continuum between male and female sexuality. The hermaphrodite, the male who was believed to menstruate, became one of the central focuses of Hirschfeld's work. But all of this new "science" which used the existence of male menstruation still drew on the image of the marginality of those males who menstruated and thus pointed toward a much more ancient tradition.
The idea of male menstruation is part of a Christian tradition of seeing the Jew as inherently, biologically different. From the late fourth century Adversus Judaeos (Against the Jews) of the early Church father St. John Chrysostom through the work of Thomas Cantipratanus, the thirteenth-century anatomist, the abnormal and abhorrent body of the Jew marked the implacable difference of Jewish males. The argument was that male Jews menstruated as a mark of the "Father's curse," their pathological difference. This view continued throughout the Middle Ages until the early modern period. The view which attributed to the Jews diseases for which the "sole cure was Christian blood" reappeared again as part of the blood libel accusations in the late nineteenth century. It was raised again at the turn of the century in a powerfully written pamphlet by the Professor of Hebrew at the University in St. Petersburg, Daniel Chwolson, as one of the rationales used to justify the blood libel, that Jews killed Christian children (or virgins) to cure themselves. Chwolson notes that it was used to "cure the diseases believed to be specifically those of the Jews," such as male menstruation. This version of the blood accusation ties the meaning of the form of the circumcised genitalia to the Jew's diseased nature.
These older charges about Jewish male menstruation, of Jewish hermaphrodism, reappear with their reprinting in the nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century the arch-racist Theodor Fritsch—whose Anti-Semite's Catechism, first published in 1887, was the encyclopedia of German anti-Semitism—saw the sexuality of the Jew as inherently different than that of the German: "The Jew has a different sexuality than the Teuton; he will and cannot understand it. And if he attempts to understand it, then the destruction of the German soul can result." The hidden sign that the Jewish man is neither male nor female is his menstruation. The implicit charge of pathological bisexuality, of hermaphrodism, had traditionally been lodged against the Jewish male. (Male Jews are like women, among other ways, because they both menstruate as a sign of their pathological difference.)
But Baer was a Jewish girl who did not menstruate but had to maintain the fantasy that he did. Was he, as he presumed in his first real job, merely an "anaemic and poorly developed" girl, for whom "menstruation did not begin before the twenties"? Or was he truly different? The question of ritual cleanliness during and after menstruation, the identification of his body as the antithesis of the menstruating Jewish male, here the female who does not menstruate, is clarified only when he comes to understand his body as that of a healthy, Jewish male, who does not menstruate. Masculinity will out. The resolution of Baer's conflict comes through a physician who recognizes him as a man and urges him to comprehend his desire for a woman as "a natural feeling." All ambiguities are resolved—Baer claims—and the state resolved his question of identity by reassigning him as a man. He trains his new male body through exercise and sport. He becomes a "real" man except for "a slight furrow left behind from tight lacing." That mark remains written on the body. No circumcision marked Baer's new male body, but the scar of his role as a woman. Yet the world into which he remade himself was the world of a growing anti-Semitism in which the appearance of the Jew on the street was as "clearly" marked as that of the woman. Indeed, the introduction of the Yellow Star and the banning of cosmetic surgery in Nazi Germany both were aimed at making the invisible visible, as the fabled ability to recognizes Jews at a glance turned out to be an anti-Semitic fantasy. Baer ends his life in Israel after his flight to Palestine from a Germany in 1938. By then Germany was more obsessed by Jews than by the ambiguity of gender.