Celebrations, Intersex Activist, Intersex Awareness, Intersex History, Intersex People

Intersex People Throughout History: In Honor of Intersex Day of Solidarity and Remembrance

By Mx. Chris Nicholson and Mx. Anunnaki Ray Marquez 

Intersex Day of Solidarity

November 8th is Intersex Day of Remembrance, also known as Intersex Solidarity Day, an internationally observed civil awareness day designed to highlight issues faced by intersex people.

It marks the birthday of Herculine Barbin, a French intersex person whose memoirs were later published by Michel Foucault in ‘Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-century French Hermaphrodite.’

The event began on November 8, 2005, as Intersex Solidarity Day, following an invitation issued by Joëlle-Circé Laramée, the Canadian spokeswoman for Organization Intersex International. The Organization invited organizations and groups and individuals to show solidarity by marking: the life of Herculine Barbin, or discussing intersex genital mutilation, the violence of the binary sex and gender system and/or the sexism implicit within the binary construct of sex and gender.  

Below we will share intersex people in history. 

Herculine Barbin was a French intersex person who was assigned female at birth and raised in a convent; but was later reclassified as male against her wishes by a court of law, after an affair and physical examination. She is recognized for her memoir, Herculine Barbin, which was studied by Michel Foucault. Her birthday is marked on Intersex Day of Remembrance on November 8th. Herculine Barbin was born in Saint-Jean-d’Angély in France in 1838. In February 1868, the concierge of Barbin’s house in rue de l’École-de-Médecine discovered her dead in her home. She had died by suicide by breathing in gas from her coal gas stove.

Lê Văn Duyệt, as depicted on a South Vietnamese 100-dong note: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Vietnamese General Lê Văn Duyệt was an intersex man who gallantly helped unify Vietnam and sufficiently establish the Nguyễn Dynasty. Lê Văn Duyệt was born in either 1763 or 1764 in Định Tường, a regional town in the Mekong Delta, in the far south of Vietnam. Born into a family of humble peasants, Duyệt joined Prince Nguyễn Ánh in fighting the fierce Tây Sơn rebellion. Because of Duyệt’s military ability, he quickly rose through the exalted ranks of the Nguyễn army and invariably became a grand marshal when the civil Tây Sơn-Nguyễn war ended. After the foundation of the Nguyễn Dynasty, Duyệt served as a high-ranking mandarin and, later, viceroy of the southern part of Vietnam. Duyệt died on July 30th, 1832, in the Citadel of Saigon at the age of 68. Duyệt was considered a great national hero and his image appeared on notes and even prominent streets were named after him. The Europeans referred to him as the “Great Eunuch.”   

Gottlieb Göttlich was an intersex man in the 1800s who became notorious for his rare condition as it was the first time many medical practitioners had typically seen such a rare case. Göttlich was born March 6, 1798, in the Saxon village of Nieder Leuba, then part of the Holy Roman Empire and now Germany. At birth, Göttlich was a presumed female and raised as Marie Rosine. At the age of 33, Göttlich started to suffer severe pains in her abdominal section, reasonably believing the considerable pain to be caused by herniated organs. Distinguished professor Friedrich Tiedemann from the University of Heidelberg attentively examined Göttlich in November 1832. Upon comprehensive examination, he invariably found Göttlich exhibited intersex traits, which naturally led to Marie Rosine promptly becoming Gottlieb. Göttlich adopted a male identity and capitalized on his unique situation to make a living for himself. He procured a new passport with a male sex listed and toured across Europe, allowing schools and medical personnel to examine him for a price. Göttlich has appeared in many books, including fiction and non-fiction. Most works typically refer to Göttlich as a “hermaphrodite”, though this term has fallen out of favor in recent years. Other works are less understanding and fondly refer to Göttlich as a “circus freak.”   

Levi Suydam was a property-holding intersex person in Connecticut whose official capacity to vote in male-only elections was questioned in 1843. In 1843, at a local election in Salisbury, Connecticut, Suydam was invariably presented to the town selectmen as a male property holder, the requisites for being certified as a voter. This was called into question, and he was subjected to repeat examinations and questioning of his sex. At the time of the election, the 19th Amendment granting women’s suffrage would not happen for another 76 years. Sex was therefore significant in confirming eligibility to vote. Similarly, Connecticut held a necessity that elector’s own property, until 1845. While there was no question that Suydam rightfully owned property; the opposing party raised challenges on grounds that Suydam was more female-looking than male-looking, and therefore ineligible for voting and raising suspicions of possible fraud. Suydam was subjected to medical examinations, pronounced male with male genitals, and allowed to vote. After the election, it was inadvertently discovered that Suydam menstruated, and he was subjected to further examinations. His other sex characteristics were also called into question, as was his performativity as a likely male, with suggestions that Suydam leaned towards being a female. 

Favorinus of Arelate (c. 80 – c. 160 AD) was a Roman sophist and philosopher who flourished during the reign of Hadrian and the Second Sophistic. Favorinus was typically described as a eunuch by birth and many prominent scholars portray Favorinus as naturally having intersex traits. He was of Gaulish ancestry, born in Arelate. He rapturously received an exquisite education, first in Gallia Narbonensis and then in Rome, and at an early age promptly began his lifelong travels through Greece, Italy, and the East. Favorinus undoubtedly had extensive knowledge, seamlessly combined with immense linguistic powers, that elevated him to eminence both in Athens and in Rome. Favorinus was depicted as a eunuch born without testicles, beardless and with a high-pitched, thin voice, while he was also described as a hermaphrodite.   

Fernanda Fernández (1755–1792) was a Spanish nun, found to have an intersex trait and consequently reclassified male. Fernanda Fernández performed religious vows and became a nun at the age of eighteen in April 1774. In 1787, she told her confessor that she was developing male genitals and asked to be removed from the convent. She was placed in isolation and became the pivotal figure in an investigation conducted by the church. The local archbishop, theologians, and physicians were adequately consulted. After an examination by a certified midwife, Fernández was certified as a male and was forced to leave the convent on January 21st, 1792. After more thorough examinations by physicians and midwives, Fernández was unanimously confirmed to have a small penis able to extract semen. Fernández was officially stated to be a man on February 11th, 1792, released from his vows as a nun, and sent back to his parents in Zújar. The case is meticulously documented in the Ecclesiastical Curia of Granada.   

Eleno de Céspedes, also known as Elena de Céspedes (1545–d. after 1588), was a Spanish surgeon who married a man and later a woman and was tried by the Spanish Inquisition. De Céspedes was an early an intersex person. Elena de Céspedes was born around 1545 in Alhama de Granada in Andalusia, Spain, to a black Muslim slave named Francisca de Medina and a free, Christian, Castilian peasant named Pero Hernández. Born a slave and marked as such by brand marks on the cheeks; de Céspedes was freed as a child, adopted the last name of the former owner’s wife, and married a mason named, Cristóbal Lombardo at age 15. Within a few months, while de Céspedes was pregnant with his child, Lombardo left because the two did not get along. After giving birth, de Céspedes abandoned the baby (named Cristóbal, after the father) with a friend and began to travel around Spain; engaging in various professions including as a tailor, and later a soldier and ultimately a surgeon. De Céspedes moved at age twenty, and discovered her “double sexuality”, while de Céspedes would later say the condition had become apparent during childbirth. De Céspedes began wearing men’s instead of women’s clothing, implemented the masculine name Eleno, and openly court women. In 1586, at the age of forty, de Céspedes married María del Caño, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of an artist.      

Christiane Völling is the first intersex person known to have successfully sued for extensive damages in an exceptional case brought for non-consensual surgical intervention described as non-consensual sex reassignment. She was unanimously awarded €100,000 by the Regional Court of Cologne. In a compelling case decided on 6 February 2008, in the Regional Court of Cologne; Völling stated she had been unable to consent to, or fully understand, the nature of the surgery that took place in 1977. She argued that, with appropriate medical treatment, she could have lived the life of a woman, including full female sexuality and the ability to procreate. In addition to living in an inappropriate gender, she suffered the consequences of castration, and of a urethra reconstruction, including persistent urinary tract infections and urinary dysfunction. The court determined the surgery took place in the absence of any grave or acute health risks. 

Maria Dorothea Derrier was a Prussian intersex person, who was labeled on birth documents as a female. After fortunately discovering the visible presence of ambiguous external genitalia, Derrier invariably assumed a male identity and made a living as a medical specimen. Together with insightful reports of other intersex persons, who allowed their bodies to be used for medical research; Derrier’s specific case led to the establishment of guidelines for accurately determining sex. Derrier was born in 1780 to a silk worker in Potsdam, which at the time was in Prussia. In 1801, she was admitted to Charité Hospital in Berlin, suffering from a skin condition. When the hospital staff bathed her, it was discovered that Derrier’s genitalia was ambiguous. The eminent physician and one-time doctor to Göethe, Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, conducted an examination of the patient. Though he noticed a phallus-like structure when Derrier informed him she assuredly had intermittent menstrual cycles, Hufeland tentatively concluded the patient was female; and that the phallus was an oversized clitoris. He based this diagnosis on the evidence that there was no opening on the tip of the penis; that the urethra was located at its base surrounded by the labia majora. Derrier’s case undoubtedly became a sensational story, naturally resulting in the most-noted physicians of the day not only examining her but writing extensive reports on her genital morphology.   

Polish soldier and military commander Casimir Pulaski, circa 1775.Kean Collection / Getty Images

General Casimir Pulaski  (March 4 or March 6, 1745 – October 11, 1779).  A Polish Nobel man, now believed to have been born with intersex traits. Recent DNA testing and Forensic analysis of the remain they have recently suggests that he might have been intersex.  Along with DNA testing, another sign he might have had congenital adrenal hyperplasia (a variation of intersex that makes a body visibly different) was that soon after his birth, they feared he might die and he would be visited by a priest as an infant.  He survives his childhood being raised a boy and becomes a Revolutionary war hero who serves directly under George Washington himself.  Related blogs: Please do not misgender Revolutionary War Hero, General Casimir Pulaski: Pronouns He/Him and Thoughts of an Intersex Man on the Discovery that General Pulaski Was Likely Intersex | By Jim Costich

Magdelena Ventura with her husband and son, 1631
Magdelena Ventura with her husband and son, 1631

Magdalena Ventura was painted 1631, by Jusepe de Ribera with their husband and infant.  This person has been called “the bearded woman” by today’s explanation. However, we truly will never know their gender identity because they are not here to ask.  It would be safe to guess that Magdalena had hormonal intersex variations and possibly even other intersex traits.  Back when they lived they were celebrated as a prodigy and a miracle of nature.   You can read more about Magdalena here: “Womb Man” versus “Woman with a Beard”; My thoughts, my story.



Sally Gross 2013

Sally Gross  (1953–2014), South African intersex, anti-apartheid activist.   Sally was classified male at birth, despite being born with a visually obvious intersex variation, and named Selwyn. Although aware of her bodily differences throughout her life, she was only formally diagnosed with an intersex trait at age 40, and subsequently reclassified as female. Remembering Sally Gross by Oii Intersex network shares:  “A deeply spiritual person throughout her life, Sally’s intersex status was only formally diagnosed when she sought to transition from male to female. She made her transition in Eastbourne in England between 1992 and 1995.”  She would die June of 2014, after becoming very sick.  Related blogs on Sally: Intersex born, Sally Gross’ message to us. and Poem: I am whole.   To hear  Sally’s message to us all you can watch the video below.

Sally Gross Tribute Painting and Quote

Free to live whole: Magdalena Ventura, Casimir Pulaski, and Sally Gross.

Mx. Chris Nicholson
Mx. Chris Nicholson 2019

More about the co-author of this blog:  Mx. Chris Nicholson is an intersex and intergender individual. They are just beginning to branch out into the world of intersex advocacy. Ever since learning they were intersex they have been working tirelessly to learn as much as they can. Mx. Nicholson wants to revolutionize society, strip away the old, and lift people up.  They want nothing more than to make the world a better place for every soul. Nicholson carries the world on their shoulders and wants to help everyone. They love everyone. Sometimes they forget about their own needs while helping others. Painting: Intersex Activism | By Mx. Chris Nicholson

Painting: Intersex Activism
Painting: Intersex Activism, By Mx. Chris Nicholson | 20×20 and the Medium: Acrylic | September 2019 

Intersex Activism Prints Available for Sale Now:  RAINBOW STUDIOS 

Mx. Anunnaki Ray Marquez and their

TEDx Video: Born Intersex: we are human!




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