Monday, 13 April 2015

Malta's GIGESC and Ancient Lessons in Ambiguity

At the beginning of this month the island nation of Malta passed the world’s most progressive piece of legislation governing gender identity. Malta’s Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act (GIGESC) allows people to change their gender identity on official documents without the need to provide proof of any ‘psychiatric,psychological or medical treatment to make use of the right to gender identity’. This makes it possible to legally change one’s gender within 30 days without needing any sort of medical intervention.

However, the part of the bill that has gained the most attention is the section that protects the ‘right to bodily integrity and physical autonomy’ for intersex individuals, banning sex assignment surgeries until the person in question can give informed consent. The term intersex describes people who are born with both male and female sexual characteristics. It is estimated that intersex babies account for almost 2 inevery 100 births each year. Despite this, in many countries, including the UK, parents have to list the sex of the child as either maleor female on the birth certificate.
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body (2000), pg. 59. 

From the middle of the 20th century onwards it became popular to ‘fix’ intersex infants by performing various ‘normalising’ surgeries on them. These surgeries frequently destroyedor severely impeded sexual function in later life in favour of making sure that the child in question could pass as male or female. Children born genetically male, but with what doctors considered insufficiently large penises, had feminisingsurgeries performed on them and were raised as girls. Those born genetically female, but whose genitals seemed too masculine, were subjected to clitoridectomies. Malta’s GIGESC is the first law to make these practices illegal.

The GIGESC recognises that the birth of a child with genitals that are not clearly male or female does not constitute a medical emergency. Rather, the emergency is cultural. What will the parents say to relatives who ask whether the baby is a boy or a girl? Will the child be able to get changed in front of other children without them asking questions? Will a boy be able to peestanding up?

The great thing about culture, though, is that we can change it! Laws like the GIGESC play a crucial role in doing this. But we can also call our own culture’s prejudices into question by comparing the way we treat intersex people with other ways of dealing with this experience.

Roman marble statue,
20 B.C.-A.D. 40. Museum of Fine
Arts, Boston. 
During the Roman Republic intersex births were seen as portents of divine disfavour and these children were killed. On the other hand, many Greek authors insisted that true intersex did not exist; those who appeared to be hermaphrodites were in fact only men or women who were suffering from an illness. Greek doctors developed surgeries, resembling those still performed on intersex infants in our time, which masculinized or feminized the genitals to reveal what they considered to be the true sex of these individuals.

Although it is very difficult to trace intersex histories, we do get some glimpses of the options available to intersex people in the ancient world. Historians tell stories of people like Herais, a woman who—as a married adult—developed a tumour that, on closer inspection, was revealed to enclose male genitals. Herais appeared in court, pleading that she was in fact a man. The court agreed and called in the surgeons who performed an operation on her. Herais was then given the legal status of a man, changed their name, and joined the army.

Hermaphroditus and Salmacis by Jan Gossaert.
Early 16th century. 
Museum Boijmans Van
Beuningen, Rotterdam
The ancient history of intersex was often violent. In order to survive, intersex people were required to pass as members of the male or female sex. However, in art and myth they were allowed to occupy a more ambiguous space. Poets and artists show that we do not always need to answer the question ‘is it a boy or a girl’.

According to the poet Ovid, Hermaphroditus (from whom we get the English word hermaphrodite) was the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. While bathing one day in a woodland pool, he was spotted by the nymph Salmacis who was overcome with love for him. When Hermaphroditus rejected her, she jumped into the pool after him, wrapping herself tightly around him. While he tried to free himself, Salmacis prayed to the gods that they should never be separated. The gods granted her prayer and joined Hermaphroditus and Salmacis together in one body, neither male nor female, but both male and female.

In the art that decorated the homes of wealthy Romans, hermaphrodites were often shown as sexually powerful and alluring. The force of these images lies in the way that they disrupt the gaze of the admiring viewer and refuse to declare themselves as male or female. The figure of the sleeping hermaphrodite was very popular in Roman art, and many copies of the statue below survive from the ancient world. At first the viewer sees only what appears to be a sleeping woman. 

Rear view of the sleeping hermaphrodite, circa 2nd century A.D.
Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome. 

However, when the viewer moves in for a closer look and circles the sleeping figure, it reveals that it is not simply a sleeping woman. The figure has male genitals, its hair suddenly looks shorter, and yet it still has breasts. The viewer’s expectations are overturned and she is left uncertain as to whether she has been admiring a statue of a man or a woman, but the statue makes deciding this impossible.
Front view of the sleeping hermaphrodite.
Modern medicine and law share the Greco-Roman urge to divide bodies neatly into male and female, no matter the harm that this causes. But ancient artists can show us different ways of understanding this. The sculptor of the sleeping hermaphrodite teaches us how to inhabit an indeterminate, ambiguous space between male and female. Laws like the GIGESC will hopefully mean that we all become more comfortable here.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Rhodes, Filth, and the Politics of Memory

Over the High Street entrance to my college in Oxford stands a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, archimperialist of the nineteenth century, a man who wanted to make it possible to travel from the Cape to Cairo without ever having to leave British territory. Rhodes was, without doubt, the source of much evil in the history of Southern Africa. The legislation that he introduced as prime minister of the Cape Colony pushed black people off their land and raised the property qualification that they needed to satisfy in order to vote. These were laws which helped lay the foundations of apartheid. 
The statue of Cecil John Rhodes 
being covered by protestors. 
The statue is now covered over 
with wooden boards. 

Another statue of Rhodes, not in Oxford, but on the southern tip of the African continent, has become the focal point of a student protest movement whose name and rallying cry is ‘Rhodes Must Fall’. Last month, this statue, sitting in the middle of the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT), had a bucket of poo thrown over it. Since then, students have been calling loudly for the removal of Rhodes’ image as part of the ‘decolonisation' of the university more generally.

Critics of 'Rhodes Must Fall' claim that the campaigners are attempting to ‘cleanse history of its veracity’. However, it is simply not true that pulling down the statue of Rhodes is the same as pretending that the acropolis or the forum weren’t 'built by the sweat of slaves and the grinding oppression of the slaveowners'. I've read no one suggesting that Rhodes' name should be removed from the history books, only that it is time to stop publicly glorifying those men who helped to create the sorts of injustices and inequalities that still characterise so much of South African society. 

That Rhodes still sits at the heart of the UCT campus is emblematic of the way that the economic, academic and social privileges of white South Africa persist even in 2015. Just like other white South Africans, my life and career in the academy has been made easier by these privileges. In a country where nearly 80% of the population is black, only 3% of academic staff at UCT are, and there is only one black woman who holds the title of full professor, while 111 white men can lay claim to this honour.

The Roman Emperor Septimius Severus with 
his wife, Julia Domna, and sons, the future 
emperors Geta and Caracalla. Geta's face 
has been erased, probably after he was 
murdered by his brother and made the object 
of damnatio memoriae.
Statues, like all symbols, have power. This is something that the Romans knew well. When they deposed ‘bad emperors’ or political enemies they also deposed their statues. Statues could be mutilated or torn down, portraits erased, names scratched off the coins and inscriptions that celebrated the fallen tyrant’s achievements. This is often referred to as damnatio memoriae, literally ‘damnation of memory’. 

Memoria meant more for the Romans than the word ‘memory’ really gets across. It was the key to a kind of afterlife, a way that everyone, from freed slaves to emperors, could ensure that they lived on, even if only in the memories of the people that passed by their tombs, saw their statues, or read inscriptions celebrating their deeds. Memory sanctions shut down routes to this sort of immortality by erasing or defacing a person’s name or image. For emperors, who could normally expect to join the gods after they died, this was a clear sign that there was no room for them in heaven.

Lucius Aelius Sejanus had memory sanctions 
imposed on him after a conspiracy to overthrow 
the emperor Tiberius failed. This coin was later 
defaced to remove his name.
Sometimes the aim of this was oblivion, sometimes a visible show of disrespect. Of course, this can make it difficult for historians to study certain aspects of the past. However, damnatio memoriae shouldn’t be thought of as a veil that hides historical truth. Removing this veil would not reveal the past to us in perfect clarity. 

Far from obscuring our view of history, how the Romans treated images of 'bad emperors' is the very stuff of history. Coins like the one above or statues like the one below tell us much more about the past than they would if they had been left unaltered. To assume that their defacement in some way detracts from their historical value is to forget that Roman emperors carefully managed the way they appeared in public art. Even before these images were altered they were not uncomplicated records that simply told THE truth. 

Bust of the emperor Caligula. The statue's
eyes have been gouged out and the face has
been attacked.
The same is true in Rhodes' case. Sitting where it does now, his statue tells only one history. Keeping it there does not give us a clear vision of South Africa's past. But, throwing poo at it or removing it does tell us something about how the present understands and relates to this past. The Romans knew that a statue could keep a man and his deeds alive even after he was long dead. It could set him amongst the gods or send him to Hades. The question that South Africans have to ask is which of these two fates they wish for Rhodes and his legacy.