When I was thirteen, another boy at sleep-away camp—a boy whom I had never spoken to, but who had heard me speak—fixed me with his blue eyes and asked, “Are you a hermaphrodite?”
I kept very still. Years before this moment, when I was seven or eight, I had cupped a tiny frog in my hands for the first time, felt the ferocious thrum of its heart through the tissue-thin skin of its belly. Now, though, my own heart seemed to be beating even faster. My throat felt too tight—for words, for breath.
At last I managed to stammer out that no, no I wasn’t.
“Are you sure?” the boy asked, a smirk on his lips and in his voice. He was taller than me, more solidly built, and he would have beaten me easily in a physical fight. But he didn’t need knuckles or knees to make me squirm; all he needed was words. One word.
“Do you know what that means?”
I didn’t, not really. But like all teenagers, I was sensitive to tone—to the shadings we give words, to how we help them give themselves away. And I knew from the way he said hermaphrodite that he meant freak. Something even worse than freak, maybe.
I don’t remember how the conversation ended. What I do remember is this: that it happened outside, that my sister Katie was there, watching, and that when I walked away, she followed. I stumbled through the trees, something awful swelling in my gut, and then I was cursing the other boy’s name. I said words that I’d barely even allowed myself to think before, words like shithead and motherfucker—words so ugly they seemed to scorch my tongue, to leave a trail of dirty smoke in the late summer air. And Katie laughed loudly, determinedly, not at me but at the boy, and even then some part of me understood that she was trying to help me: trying to shove the humiliation off of me and onto him.
But even as she laughed, some part of me knew that it was already too late. That no curse of mine could undo the boy’s questions, and no amount of laughter could dissolve this new word, the one that somehow meant both monster and me.
The word “hermaphrodite” comes to us from an ancient myth about a beautiful boy. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid writes that Hermaphroditus was the lovely son of the god Hermes and the goddess Aphrodite. When he was fifteen years old, Hermaphroditus dove into a pool inhabited by a water nymph named Salmacis, who tried to seduce him. He resisted, but she twined her arms around him and prayed that they would never be parted—and the gods granted her wish. Immediately their bodies began to fuse together, becoming a single form, one that was not quite male or female, “but seemed to be at once both and neither.”
Today, the word “hermaphrodite” is often used incorrectly to refer to intersex individuals. As the Intersex Society of North America explains on its website, intersex people are those individuals born “with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male,” including people with nonstandard genitalia and those born with a combination of XX and XY chromosomes. By contrast, the website continues, the word “hermaphrodite” comes from myth—from Ovid—and describes “a physiologic impossibility”: a being who is “both fully male and fully female.”
As a figure of myth, then, the hermaphrodite reveals little about the human body. But it can show us much about how humans have dreamed the body—the body, and the voice.
Once Hermaphroditus saw what had happened to him, he cried out to the gods, “but not in a man’s voice.” This last detail is the final sign of his transformation, the final proof that he has become (as Ovid puts it) “a creature of both sexes.” His new voice serves, too, as a symbol of how much he has lost. As one of the tale’s first English translators wrote in 1565:
But now, when that Hermaphrodite
dyd see in water playne,
He entred lyke a man therin,
and shulde come foorth agayne
But halfe a man. Hym selfe he loste.
Growing up, I wasn’t a beautiful boy, but I was a pretty one. Photos from that time show me with long lashes, milky skin, delicate bones. I didn’t have any brothers, which maybe explains why I didn’t know how to swagger or snarl or spit—all the things other boys my age seemed to understand instinctively. Instead I played with my sister, my twin; we knew how to braid hair and the words to every song in The Little Mermaid. When our aunt gave Katie a little plastic packet of makeup on our eighth birthday, I didn’t think twice: As soon as we could, my sister and I slipped away to her room to try some on. I draped a yellow blanket over my head to give myself long blonde waves of hair and then smudged on some of the lipstick; it was like a soft, cherry-scented crayon, its taste vaguely sweet.
Katie did the same, but when we looked at ourselves in the mirror, her expression darkened. “It’s not fair,” she said, “you’re prettier”—and, with a sudden swell of pride, I saw that it was true.
But by middle school, I knew that boys weren’t supposed to be pretty. They were supposed to play football in the school parking lot during recess, red-cheeked and lean in the chill November light; to brag about the new games they’d gotten for their N64; to stand in a fidgety circle with the other guys during school dances until finally, after much negotiation and many go-betweens, it was time to slow-dance with a girl in the dark.
Middle school was a time of transformation, of quicksilver shifts. “I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms,” Ovid announces at the opening of the Metamorphoses; he’s about to recount stories of gods and nymphs, but he could just as easily be describing the sixth grade. That year, my classmates and I stifled horrified giggles as our teachers lectured us about changing bodies and the importance of good hygiene, then passed out little plastic bags filled with sample sizes of soap and deodorant. But before long, just as the informational pamphlets promised, bodies began to change. Girls started wearing bras, and the boys learned to snap the straps against their backs—that loud, unmistakable crack yet another sign of how everything was shifting, being remade before our very eyes.
The boys’ bodies started changing, too, sprouting dark hair and the angry red spots of acne. Most startling of all was the change in their voices: they would spike up uncontrollably, or boom out with sudden bass, unmistakably male.
Despite the transformations going on around me, though, my own body remained small and pale and girl-soft. Pretty. My voice didn’t change, either; when I answered the phone, strangers often thought I was my mother. For a little while, this didn’t bother me; middle school was embarrassing enough without a voice that squeaked one minute and cracked the next. But after my week at summer camp, I understood that my voice was undeniably feminine, and therefore undeniably shameful. It was an aberration, a weakness that I needed to keep from the world—and, most especially, from other boys.
I also knew that time was running out. If my voice didn’t break by the time I started high school, I would be a target every time I spoke. And so over the course of eighth grade I waited—half afraid, half hopeful—for the change that every pamphlet promised me was coming. The moment I would open my mouth and hear a man’s voice instead of a girl’s.
Western culture has never liked feminine boys. One English educational treatise from 1570 warns that a schoolboy should not have a “softe, weake, piping, womannishe” voice, but one that is “audible, stronge, and manlike.” It offers this advice almost as a side note; as a whole, the treatise explains how to teach Latin to young men by making them translate Roman authors like Virgil and Ovid. But if the language the treatise teaches is an ancient one, then so too are the worries it expresses about the voice. As the poet and scholar Anne Carson notes, writers from Greco-Roman antiquity persistently associated high-pitched voices with people whom they believed to be “deviant from or deficient in the masculine ideal of self-control. Women, catamites, eunuchs and androgynes [fell] into this category.” (A catamite, the OED rather primly explains, is “a boy kept for homosexual practices.” An androgyne, meanwhile, is “a being uniting the physical characteristics of both sexes; a hermaphrodite.”)
Carson explains that, in the patriarchal culture of ancient Greece, masculinity was defined in part “by its different use of sound. Verbal continence [was] an essential feature of the masculine virtue of sophrosyne,” which she defines as “prudence” or “self-control”; according to the Greeks, “a man in his proper condition of sophrosyne should be able to dissociate himself from his emotions and so control their sound.” In contrast, women and other nonmen were believed to be unable to control their emotions, and hence unable to control the sounds they made. Women and androgynes and catamites who could not help but weep and wail and scream in their high-pitched, unruly voices.
Finally, sometime during that fearful, sweaty summer before high school, it happened: My voice changed. But not enough, or so it seemed to me then. Not nearly enough. It stayed high and reedy, at once overly precise and oddly liable to hold onto the ends of words, dragging them out. I noticed these things on the few occasions when I let my voice be recorded—captured on answering machines or someone’s home video—and the lisping sound of it made me cringe.
Behind my self-hate was a creeping sense of surprise, of betrayal: How could that be my voice? It sounded deeper when I heard myself speak in conversation. I wouldn’t learn until much later that everyone’s voice sounds deeper to their own ears because the sound is mediated by the bones and tissues in our heads, which pick up the voice’s lower frequencies; by comparison, a recorded voice is conducted to our inner ear only by the air, so we no longer hear those deeper tones. When we listen to our recorded voices, then, we hear ourselves as everyone else does.
At the time, all I knew was that my voice could not be trusted. The idea of calling strangers on the phone made a sick sense of dread unfurl in my stomach, and, when I couldn’t get out of it, I convinced my sister to do it for me. I even tried to change my voice by speaking from farther back in my throat. The result was pleasingly deep and masculine—a real man’s voice, at last—but I couldn’t keep it up for long. After a few minutes my throat would start to ache from the strain, as though my body could sense the falseness and refused to cooperate.
High school only intensified my shame. Saint Francis was a small Catholic school with about four hundred students, all of them male, and over my four years there I became intimately attuned to the rise and fall of my classmates’ voices. I noticed the shifts that took place over the day—how their voices sounded deeper early in the morning, low and soft-edged with sleep; how they grew abruptly louder in the cafeteria; how a new urgency washed into them when the boys talked about girls. And I noticed, always, how different their voices sounded from mine.
There were a few other boys at Saint Francis who sounded like me—even a few with lisps. For the most part they didn’t seem afraid to speak up, and yet I cringed when they did; I was ashamed for them. Couldn’t they hear how ridiculous they sounded? And couldn’t they see what danger they were in? Because the boys at my high school loved the word fag even more than the ones at summer camp had. Sometimes they shouted it playfully—launching it down the halls like a Frisbee—and sometimes they shot it at one another like a poison dart. Sometimes they even said it casually, almost tiredly, their voices echoing their older brothers’: Quit being such a fag. It didn’t matter how they said it—every time I heard that word, alarm would crackle around my skull, sharp as static electricity. Sealing my lips up tight.
While the myth of Hermaphroditus is about transformation and loss, it’s also a story about desire. As Hermaphroditus approaches the pool of Salmacis, she exclaims over his beauty, and the boy—confused, overwhelmed—blushes. This only adds to his loveliness, his skin flushing a delicate shade of pink: the color, Ovid writes, of apples “hanging in a sunlit tree, or ivory painted with red, or the moon, eclipsed . . .”
Although the myth focuses on the power of heterosexual desire, later readers sometimes understood it to be about a different kind of wanting. One seventeenth-century English translation of the Metamorphoses glosses the story of Hermaphroditus, defining the hermaphrodite as someone who “retaine[s] in one person both sexes.” But the notes to the translation state that the pool of Salmacis was located in Caria (modern-day Turkey), a place whose people were “addicted to sloth and filthy delights.” The people of this land were called hermaphrodites, we learn, not because they were “of both sexes, but for defiling themselves with either.” In other words, it was not the Carians’ bodies that earned them the name of hermaphrodites, but their willingness to sleep with men and women alike: their openness to same-sex desire.
Over time, some of these queer associations eventually became enshrined in the dictionary: One of the OED’s synonyms for “hermaphrodite” is that boy kept for homosexual practices, the catamite.
I came to hate my voice during my first year of high school not only because it sounded so shamefully feminine, but also because the story it told about me was true. He talks like a fruitcake, a boy once bluntly announced after hearing me speak, and by fourteen I was starting to understand that the boys who mocked me for my voice were right: I was gay, and—worse—they’d known it before I did. I tried to ignore what I felt, tried to refuse it; sometimes I even managed to convince myself that I was only confused. But then some boy would walk by me in the hall, his beauty like a torch, and wanting would strike me in the pit of my stomach, undeniable.
Most attractive of all, though, were boys whose voices were solidly masculine; boys whose voices sounded nothing like mine.
Once, while changing in the locker room before gym class, I listened to a few boys make fun of another freshman. He was a stocky, muscled boy with a crew cut—not at all an obvious target of ridicule, except he was saddled with the unfortunate last name of “Dix.”
“You like dicks, huh?” someone asked with a smirk, while the boys around him snickered. “Big ones?”
But Dix had heard things like this before—if not at Saint Francis, then elsewhere—and he was prepared. “Why do you think that’s my name?” he demanded, wresting his gym bag out of his locker and slamming the door shut. He answered before anyone else could. “Because it’s so big I could choke you with it.”
A boy’s taunt, yes, but his voice throughout was cool, deep, controlled: a man’s voice. The teasing quickly stopped.
Standing alone at my locker, I tried again and again to swallow the lump that had formed in my throat—fear and anger and desire, all knotted together, inseparable.
The lump would stay there, in one form or another, for the rest of high school. Sometimes, when I relaxed, it would be no bigger than a seed, and I’d almost forget it was there. But whenever I saw Dix in the hallways, laughing with his friends, muscles shifting under the thin white fabric of his dress shirt, it would swell up again: that thick, wordless knot that came from knowing he could choke me without lifting a finger.
During my first week of college, I read a centuries-old love poem addressed to someone said to be a hermaphrodite. Published in 1688 by the poet and playwright Aphra Behn, “To the Fair Clarinda” praises a person who seems to be at once a “beauteous Woman” and a “Lovely Charming Youth.” Behn’s speaker relishes the ambiguity of her subject, claiming first that, although Clarinda’s female friends might be attracted to her, they can commit no “crime” with her—that is, they can’t actually sleep with her. But then the speaker pivots, slyly suggesting that if by chance such a crime is possible, Clarinda’s “form excuses it. / For who, that gathers fairest flowers believes /A snake lies hid beneath the fragrant leaves?” (Who indeed? Only after examining the footnotes did I understand the phallic connotations of the snake.) The poem closes by celebrating Clarinda as a “beauteous Wonder of a different kind,” and—for any readers who might still be confused—by alluding to Hermes and Aphrodite.
Behn’s three-hundred-year-old poem made me sit up very straight in my seat, my mind rinsed with wonder, awed at two of the messages it seemed to encode. The first had to do with history. Clarinda was proof that people who broke the rules around gender had existed for centuries: There was a we, and we had a past. The second had to do with desire. Clarinda was proof that androgyny didn’t have to be seen as an awful, freakish thing; to some, it was a marvelous quality. Seductive, even. For the first time, I considered the possibility that “hermaphrodite”—the word I hated, the slur that had hurt me so deeply—could be a caress.
Encountering Clarinda shook something free in me, loosened the ever-present knot in my throat. She made me remember the long-ago game I’d played with my sister: the yellow blanket falling to my shoulders like waves of hair, the illicit taste of lipstick. For Halloween that year, I dressed like Britney Spears, tracing liquid liner across my eyelids and borrowing a kilt from a new friend who lived in my dorm. That night, I learned what happened when guys notice you—really notice you. How their eyes lock on yours and their jaws tighten, as though they’re keeping something from climbing out of their throats.
At the end of that year I transferred to a much more liberal college, one where people regularly dyed their hair green and purple, and wore fairy wings to class. Before long, I was dressing as a girl nearly every weekend. I grew my blonde hair down to my shoulders, stuffed balled-up socks into borrowed bras, learned how makeup could serve both as camouflage and war paint. Years later, an acquaintance told me that she wasn’t sure, that first semester, whether I was male or female. “During the week,” she said, “you seemed like this normal-looking boy. But then the weekend came, and suddenly you were this beautiful girl . . .”
It seems fitting that, while at this college, I learned about Plato’s myth of the androgyne. Like Ovid’s tale, it’s an ancient story. In the Symposium, the character of Aristophanes claims that, initially, humans had two sets of arms and legs and genitals, and stood like twins joined at the back, their two faces sharing a head but looking in opposite directions. Some of these dual-bodied humans were both male, some both female, and some were male and female—a third sex, known as androgynes. In order to punish these early people for rebellion, however, Zeus split them all apart, leaving them fragmented and lonely, filled with a desire for their lost other half that persists until this day. Those who were originally male-bodied are now men who desire other men; likewise, those who were once female-bodied are now women who desire other women. And the androgyne—the being that was once the third sex—became men who want women, and women who want men.
Like Behn’s poem in praise of Clarinda, Plato’s myth suggested the beauty of mingling male and female attributes. It made androgyny into something pure and complete: not a sign of the loss of self (as in Ovid), but a return to the original, whole, uncompromised self.
I wish I could say that my weekend transformations were a restoration of self, a reclamation of something lost in high school. And there was a strange kind of magic to them. It felt somehow both soothing and exhilarating to look at myself in the mirror after I’d finished, to admire every part of my self-willed metamorphosis—the smoky eyes, the newly pink lips. But at the same time, dressing as a girl became a way for me to indicate, without ever saying it aloud, that I wasn’t interested in other gay men. Others might be searching for the part of themselves that had broken away, but not me. What I wanted, instead, was the attention of boys like the ones at Saint Francis—boys with skateboarding scars on their knuckles and knees; boys who spoke in a low, hesitant mumble. I wanted the tingle on the back of my neck that told me they were watching; wanted the moment of eyes meeting; wanted the slow, deliberate approach across the crowded party.
The game never lasted long. In the end, my voice always gave me away: too feminine to mark me as a real boy, it was also too masculine to let me pass as a girl. But I didn’t mind. In some ways, the moment of realization was the best part. I would open my lips, and soon the boy in front of me would turn the color of sunlit apples, of ivory painted with red. Of the moon, eclipsed.
“Freaks,” James Baldwin wrote in one of his final essays, “are called freaks and treated the way they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.” Few figures fit this argument better than that of the hermaphrodite, a myth about beauty and monstrosity that Western culture can’t stop dreaming. And indeed, Baldwin’s essay focuses on the hermaphrodite; he argues that this figure reveals, “in intimidating exaggeration, the truth concerning every human being.” For Baldwin, this truth is that “we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white.”
Surely he is right about this. And yet it seems to me that the hermaphrodite doesn’t just represent the universal human condition, the eternal conflicted mingling of Self and Other. Associated with so many kinds of deviance and strangeness over so many centuries, the history of the hermaphrodite is a history of queer and gender-nonconforming people—or, to be more precise, a history of ideas about them. Before we had words like gay and lesbian, before transgender and intersex, we had catamites and Carians and Clarinda—all of them woven, in one way or another, into the myth of the hermaphrodite. Understood this way, the hermaphrodite becomes a kind of queer archive, albeit a muddled and often painful one. A record whose pages we can read if we can find the strength to look back.
Even though the hermaphrodite is vital to queer history—and crucial, in many ways, to my own—there is still a part of me that wishes I could leave the figure behind. Sometimes I try. Sometimes, when I’m out on a date or about to talk to strangers, I pretend that the voice I hear when I speak—that lower, more resonant arrangement of sounds—is my real voice. Though it’s distorted, and only I can hear it, I pretend that this deeper voice is the one everyone knows.
Of course, this can only work for so long. Inevitably, there are times when I have to hear myself as everyone else does, when my voice comes lisping out from a video or a voicemail.
When this happens, I loosen my jaw; I take slow, deep breaths; I try to calm the sudden clamor of my heart. And as best I can, I listen to my voice rising into the air, uncloaked by blood or bone—that voice, my voice, this thing that is both male and female and yet somehow always neither.
The modern English translations of Ovid were taken from editions of the Metamorphoses by Mary M. Innes and A. S. Kline.