Why do you use the word "hermaphrodite"?
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,
I have friends who are intersex and as someone who identifies as neither fully male or female and who is a friend and ally to intersex people, I am wondering why you weren't more sensitive to terminology. Why are you using the word "hermaphrodite" in your book—a word choice that is either terribly ignorant or unforgivably callous. I admired the book so much for the humanity it gave to the central character and I was so disappointed to have it dashed by this thoughtless use of the word "hermaphrodite." Can you please explain why you chose this?
— Reece J.
I alluded to this concern in a previous answer, but let me address it directly here. First of all, Reece, I appreciate the issue about terminology you raise. I've had conversations with intersex people about this very subject and, as you can see from this very sentence, I do try to use the term "intersex" when referring to actual, living persons. Middlesex, however, grows out of Greek mythology. The story of Hermaphroditus, the beautiful son of Hermes and Aphrodite, is one I retell, in modern guise, in two different sections of the book. The nymph Salmacis fell in love with Hermaphroditus when he took a swim in her designated pool one day. He rebuffed her advances, but she clung to him, pleading with the gods to keep the two of them from ever parting. Her prayers were answered. Hermaphroditus and Salmacis were physically fused into one being.
Why am I going into all this? Because when I use the term "hermaphrodite," I'm referring not to a person or a group of people but to a literary character. Hermaphroditus had many children: Tiresias obviously, but also Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Hermaphroditic figures appear in the mythology and folklore of just about every culture that exists. As a writer, I use the term "hermaphrodite" when speaking about such characters.
But you're right. When speaking about real people, I should—and I do my best to—use the term "intersex." One of the first source materials I consulted when I began writing Middlesex was the journal Hermaphrodites with Attitude published by The Intersex Society of North America. The writers in the journal have co-opted the term "hermaphrodite" in the way gay men and women have reclaimed the word "queer." Is it surprising, then, that my narrator, who is intersex, might use the term at times? It's paradoxical: Cal can say "hermaphodite" but I can't. Or shouldn't.
I don't know if this will satisfy you, Reece, but I hope it gives you some idea of my thinking on the subject and testifies to the fact that I have thought about it. As a writer of English, I resist any depredations to its marvelous vocabulary. I could never support a moratorium on the use of the word "hermaphrodite." I do entirely agree with you, however, that people should be aware that the proper term to apply today, when talking about human beings, is intersex. This distinction is getting ever more widely known, I think. Your question speeds that process along, and I thank you for it. I do appreciate the fact that you admired the "humanity" of my book and might add in my defense that anyone who reads Middlesex will undoubtedly respect the humanity of its narrator and central figure. Which is the main thing, after all.
— Jeffrey Eugenides
What is intersex? Watch this video.