I have cried a few times this week. I am tired, exhausted and a little stressed at work. Yet I don’t think those are the reasons why I ended up crying (several times near the end) while reading Kathleen Winter’s novel Annabel.
Annabel is the story of a couple in Labrador in the 1960s and who have a child who is neither fully male nor fully female. In a quick decision, the husband decides they will raise their child as a boy and that is that. Throughout the novel we see the struggle of all three family members as a result of that decision.
The mother constantly wonders what would her child be like as a girl. In fact, she allows her son Wayne to buy a orange sequin bathing suit, just like the Russian synchronized swimmers as long as he hides the suit from his father.
The father constantly tries to force his son into male-dominated activities, like hunting, fishing, and working the tradition Labrador jobs. He wants for his son to be accepted and not to be singled out as being strange.
The family friend who knows right away that the child is intersexed and whispers the name Annabel at Wayne’s baptism. She is the adult who takes Wayne to the hospital when his abdomen is swollen with period blood and she encourages him into adulthood and remains an open friend.
The child, Wayne, who struggles his entire childhood and adolescence because he isn’t like the other boys. He spends hours secretly looking at the Graduation Day dresses in the store while going home and chopping shrimp and making catgut. He dances at night alone up in his room and then helps chop the fire wood in the morning.
Eventually, Wayne learns who he is and what is body holds within. Wayne decides to leave home and become his own person, away from his parents and his small home town. He stops taking his hormone drugs and learns about who he is on his own. He finds acceptance as an androgynous looking human in his University campus.
Kathleen Winter writes so beautifully that it felt like she was cherishing this story in soft hands or soft cotton. The stories and the narratives are so delicate and fragile, just like Wayne. The ache within Wayne and the confusion and pain that he feels is brought out not only in his story and his thoughts, but also in Winter’s style of writing. The entire time I was reading this novel, I felt the tenderness of the situation and the characters and it was so beautiful. In this novel, we see that humans are human and that humanity is beautiful.
I am not a fan of over-hyped gender stereotypes and gender roles and I believe that the pressure on parents at the birth of their children is extraordinary. The whole industry of new-born babies is staggering. Reveal Parties. Guess the Sex Parties. Blue. Pink. It’s a Boy! It’s a Girl! Well, what if it is both?? How do those parents fit into the world of new-babies?
We are aware that gender is a social construct, yet we do not have the language or the cultural history to talk about infancy in any other way, it seems. As humans, we like categories. We like lists. We like tradition and patterns. When something happens that disrupts the order we create, we do not know how to react, so we shun or segregate. Imagine the pain, shame, fear, and confusion parents of intersexed children must feel because of their inability and inexperience within society when it comes to intersexed people. On most forms there are the ‘male’ or ‘female’ boxes to check.
Yet society is growing and is becoming more open and aware of people who do not fit into a box. In a few different Provinces, law makers are taking notice of the awkwardness of changing the sex mentioned on birth certificates and the requirements for when the sex/gender listed can be changed.
In Australia, two parents beautifully supported their teenager with this ‘birth’ announcement retraction: “In 1995 we announced the arrival of our sprogget, Elizabeth Anne, as a daughter. He informs us that we were mistaken. Oops! Our bad. We would now like to present, our wonderful son — Kai Bogert.”
Throughout the novel, I wanted to hate Wayne’s father for being so quick to decide the sex of his intersexed child. I wanted to hate the father for forcing his son into male-dominated activities. I wanted to hate the father for being overly masculine because he knows his son isn’t actually a ‘real’ man. Yet it was the scenes of the father near the end of the novel that had me crying. The father supports his child, even as an adult. The father doesn’t question or hesitate, but finds his struggling son in the big city and loves his son fully as a human being, and not just as a man.
It was the tenderness and the fragility of humanity that had me crying. To see such a hetero-male macho man accept his intersexed son unquestioningly was beautiful and heartbreaking in it’s honesty. In the end, we are all just human.
As I read this novel, I couldn’t help but think of the beauty of humanity, not gender, in Psalm 139 (13-16):
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
You just wish sometimes that people would treat you like a human being rather than seeing your gender first and who you are second. (Frances O’Grady)