Keeping it in the room: health, happiness and living in Berlin
Max is the boy at school everyone wants to be friends with. He’s cool, popular, friendly. He’s good looking, plays football, hangs out with girls and a close bunch of mates. He spends time with his little brother Daniel – who, while idolising him, nevertheless gets upset that his own fiery personality leaves him somewhat more left out. His mum and dad adore him.
In short, Max seems perfect. But of course, this would be a boring book if that were all there was to the story. For Max has a big secret – he’s intersex. Born with both male and female sexual organs, both a penis and a vagina. Although he feels and presents as a boy, his body doesn’t always agree. Few people know about his secret, and he’s rarely talked about it with his parents, because no-one saw any need to. He’s not bothered by it, so why should anyone else be?
But then something dark and terrible happens, and he can barely even talk to himself about it. Something which shakes the reality his entire life is built upon.
We at So So Gay try to cover the LGBTQI spectrum, but we’re fully aware that we rarely get to cover the I. That’s because there’s simply so little information available, since intersex is a massive spectrum all on its own. There’s even a debate about whether the intersex even fits within LGBT – a subject which is wonderfully discussed in the book.
So when we read something as well written as Golden Boy, covering a subject most of us know little about, with no holds barred, we were delighted. The story is fast paced, and, by switching viewpoints regularly, it never slows down – something which for us almost worked against it, as we were reading so fast, and so keen to find out what happens next, that we forgot to read the chapter heading, to find out who was talking to us.
We start with a breathless monologue from 10-year-old Daniel, talking about his wonderful brother, how it’s unfair that his brother is better looking, better mannered and got better friends. Parents Steve and Karen, meanwhile, who each get plenty of space in the book to communicate their feelings, find it difficult to communicate with Daniel, while Max is happy to patiently explain life issues with him, chatting in a way only siblings can, while simultaneously playing PlayStation games together.
As the story progresses, Max finds himself struggling with who he is, giving us lengthy insights into the workings of a normal teenage boy, with desires, wishes and angst no different to other heterosexual teenage boys. He struggles to keep his intersex secret to himself; and then finds himself struggling even more to keep his even bigger secret a secret.
All the time, we found ourselves wanting him to deal with it; forgetting that a 15-year-old is often simply not equipped to deal with so much at such an age, and definitely not without the help of adults. So it’s with relief that when he bunks off school to go to the doctor, she responds in the best way possible – by listening, and with sympathy.
The story stems in part, author Abigail Tarttelin told So So Gay, from her personal experience of ‘waking up’ to gender: ‘Having not really thought much about my sex previously, around age 18 I started to understand that the experience of being a woman in the present world is radically different to the experience of being male, particularly with regards to street harassment, rape culture and sexualisation.’
The story seems incredibly true to life, but, she adds, she could find no-one at any UK-based intersex organisation who would reply to her requests for help. ‘I am particularly interested in providing, as best as I can, a voice for people who might be voiceless, and in asking questions which may cause readers to open a window into a new part of themselves. Golden Boy is not only about intersexuality, but about the question of gender itself – why do we have it? What purpose does it serve? Are we master of our fate with regards to gender definitions, or servile to their limitations?’
This moving, heartbreaking story will make you think about gender and sexuality and its massive range of variations – and challenge yourself on what is normal.
Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin is available on Amazon.
Abigail is always happy to discuss the book or intersex and gender issues on Twitter.
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