Friday, January 23, 2009

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 afterward. 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.

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