Cary G. Costello, Ph.D. shared this photo recently on social media. They were born intersex, and refer to themselves also as a transgender man. Like me, Cary gave birth to a baby. After much pregnancy loss, I had two babies, and we adopted our youngest.
I have been with my husband for twenty-eight years, this month. We have been together since September of 1989. Neither my husband, nor I, are miserable. Thus, proving that intersex people are lovable and can have a family and raise kids.
This picture haunts me, because I was not allowed to appear as my true self. I was told I had to conform to appearing as a woman. I now have reclaimed my true gender, that being a non-conforming intersex man. I wish I could have appeared my true self when I had my babies. I feel that right was forever taken from me.
I share this today in my blog, because I would like to show the world that the many comments that have been made about painting, are so off the mark.
First, they called this “The Bearded Women”. How did they not know this wasn’t a “man with a womb”?
Second, most people describe away why this is a picture is of a disordered or a person suffering from a syndrome. When in reality, in my circle, this is just a variety of human.
Third, many, many comments are being made that their husband in the back ground appears “distant”, “withdrawn” and they automatically felt sorry for him. I doubt the man would have been standing in the photo if he was that miserable. Back then, for paintings, they were told not to smile.
We may never know if this person called themselves a woman or not, in this painting. However, it is my guess, that if they were anything like me, or Cary, they did not.
When I compare myself to a stereotypical woman, I know I am not a “women”. I am not a typical man either. I am a “Man with a Womb”! And it makes me very happy to be a man with a womb. I never felt I was born in the wrong body either.
I will now take this opportunity to share what Cary G. Costello, Ph.D., an intersex transgender man, shared on social media about this painting below:
This is Jusepe de Ribera’s 1631 painting, “The Bearded Woman.” In this period in Europe, people were in awe of what were termed “prodigies”–unusual people, animals and objects. “Prodigy” is from the Latin “prodigium,” meaning an omen. Europeans of the 1600s considered prodigies to be signs of God’s power, to be revered. During this period, a number of bearded women became quite famous as prodigies, often touring around the courts of Europe. In an era where it was usually only the nobility that had their portraits painted, some, like Magdalena Ventura, depicted here, had portraits commissioned by members of the nobility to record them as miracles of nature.
I use this portrait in some of my classes, and was looking for a short reading to assign on it. What I learned from that experience is that Googling this portrait is really depressing. Instead of the awe and respect shown by Ribera to his subject, you find a whole array of art critics and doctors and lulz collectors expressing nasty takes on the portrait, which they clearly assume everyone will share. All describe the subject as disturbing. Some express revulsion, some mock the subject, many use medicalized language to discuss Ventura’s “disorder.” There’s speculation about what perversity of character would have led artist Ribera to paint such a “freakish” subject. And there’s a lot of discussion of the husband in the background. His expression is described as pained or sorrowful or ashamed, and the authors state that of course he must be humiliated by having a wife with a more luxuriant beard than his own (can you say “patriarchy is alive and well”?)
It is sad to see how much more morally backward we are today than people were in the 17th century in respecting sex-variant bodies. Four hundred years ago, people were celebrating differences. Today, we give lip service to respecting diversity, while scrambling like mad to “normalize” the atypically embodied, and treating their bodies with pity and disgust.
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