Summary: Chapter 25: Gender Dysphoria in San Francisco

The driver’s name is Bob Presto. He advises Cal that girls like a man with a deep, radio announcer’s voice. Presto notes Cal’s tenor and asks his age. Cal insists he’s eighteen.Presto admits he initially mistook Cal for a girl and asks Cal if he’s gay. Cal asks to be let out of the car. Presto apologizes and promises to take Cal to San Francisco. He drops Cal off in the Haight neighborhood. Presto says he’s in “the business” and understands all about transgender people. Cal doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Presto gives him his card and promises he can help Cal make money.

In New York, the police advise Milton and Tessie to return to Detroit in case Cal comes home. Tessie and Milton meet with Dr. Luce, who explains that Callie looked at her file and got the wrong idea. Dr. Luce finally allows them to read the file after Milton gets angry.

At home, Tessie looks over Callie’s room and wonders how it created a boy. She thinks about all the ways Callie never quite looked feminine and starts to understand. Then, Tessie starts thinking about Callie and the Object and doesn’t want to reflect any further. Milton decides that Callie is just a kid who doesn’t understand what’s going on. He devotes his energy to finding his missing child.

Cal eats ice cream at a café. A homeless kid approaches him, asking for money. He promises to show Cal a safe place to sleep if Cal buys him a cheeseburger. The kid introduces Cal to his friends, fans of the Grateful Dead who have set up camp in Golden Gate Park. Low on funds, Cal realizes he’ll soon have no choice but to call his parents. However, he knows they can’t truly help him.

Milton calls Chapter Eleven and begs him to come home because Tessie is so sad. Chapter Eleven has been working as a cook at a bar, and Milton suggests he could run Hercules Hot Dogs.

One night, the other campers go to a Grateful Dead concert, leaving Cal alone. Two homeless men attack him. They grab his student id and assume it’s his girlfriend’s. When they look closer at the id, they realize it’s Cal’s. They attempt to rape him but recoil after they take off his pants. They beat Cal until he faints. When Cal comes to, he calls Presto.

Summary: Chapter 26: Hermaphroditus

Dr. Luce’s theory that nurture determines a child’s gender remains popular throughout the 1970s when everyone wants to be unisex but eventually gets replaced with the idea of evolutionary biology, which distinctly separates genders. Cal doesn’t fit into either paradigm. He chose to live as a man. Genetics don’t answer as many questions as people thought, opening the door for free will.

Bob Presto’s girlfriend tells Presto to call Cal’s parents, but Presto insists that Cal says he’s eighteen. Presto runs a peep show called Octopussy’s Garden, which displays gender nonconforming bodies swimming in a tank of water. Cal starts working at the peep show under the stage name Hermaphroditus.

The show begins with a person named Zora, using the stage name Melanie the Mermaid, swimming topless through the tank with a mermaid tail. Zora is stunningly beautiful and intersex and has a condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome. Unlike Cal, Zora is agender.Next comes Carmen, under the stage name Ellie and her Electric Eel. She’s a transgender woman with a penis. When it’s Cal’s turn to get into the tank, Presto tells the myth of Hermaphroditus over the speakers. Cal, Zora, and Carmen are always stoned during work to make the voyeurs less noticeable.

Cal stays at Zora’s place. Zora explains that intersex people have always existed, teaching Cal he’s not alone. Cal asks Zora why she tells people about her condition when it’s not obvious and she could easily pass as a woman. Zora explains she wants people to know. She believes intersex people are the next stage of human evolution.

During the day, Cal helps Zora work on her book, The Sacred Hermaphrodite. Cal researches intersex people and learns that many cultures consider them sacred. However, Cal doesn’t have magic powers.

In January, a mysterious man calls Milton claiming to know where Cal is. At first, Milton hangs up, but when the mysterious man calls back, Milton demands information. The man hangs up.

On New Year’s, Cal opens his eyes in the tank and sees that the onlookers are not disgusted. Cal feels free and begins to forget about the Object. The police raid Octopussy’s Garden. Cal calls home from the police station. Chapter Eleven answers and tells Cal that Milton died in an accident.

Analysis: Chapters 23 & 24

Although early in his journey, Cal believes that presenting as a girl leaves him vulnerable, he quickly realizes that vulnerability is not inherently gendered. The existence of predators like Ben reveals that naivete and lack of options also leave someone—male or female—vulnerable to attack. When the homeless men attack Cal, he faces different kinds of violence depending on which gender they believe him to be. First, thinking he’s a boy, they threaten physical violence toward him and sexual violence to his perceived girlfriend. The threat of sexual violence transfers to Cal when they believe he’s a girl. Finally, when confronted with his genitals, they beat and urinate on him out of homophobia and transphobia. Their perception of Cal’s gender changes the virulence and shape the violence takes but not the desire for violence itself. Bob Presto, although not physically violent, also preys on vulnerable people. Instead of responsibly calling Cal’s parents like his girlfriend urges, Presto chooses to look at Cal’s runaway status as a sign that Cal desperately requires some sort of safety and stability. Because openly gender nonconforming or binary transgender people often have difficulty finding acceptance and jobs, Presto can more easily exploit them because they have fewer options for housing and employment.

As the only intersex person Cal meets, Zora plays an important role in teaching him the normalcy of being intersex. However, Zora doesn’t function as a mirror image of Cal because they want fundamentally different things as intersex people. Zora embraces her difference from the mainstream because it makes her feel special and important. Her research therefore involves searching out other cultures that not only see intersex as normal but special, even sacred. Cal has never wanted to be different or special, even rejecting the Greek food Tessie fed him because it separated him from his classmates. He grew up in a family that worked very hard to assimilate into mainstream American culture, and Cal express a similar desire for assimilation in his 2001 sections, in which he cultivates a mainstream, albeit old-fashioned, masculinity. Therefore, while Cal envies that Zora could pass for a non-intersex person, Zora would never dream of doing so and actively claims her intersex identity. Cal and Zora thus demonstrate that intersex people are not a monolith, both because the term intersex includes many different conditions and because individuals relate to their intersexness differently.

Cal finally admits the limits of genetics in Chapter 26, advocating for a model of the universe that makes room for both fate and free will. However, Cal doesn’t reject all he has previously observed about genetics and fate because of the reality of his body and because, as he has observed, his family repeats similar patterns of behavior. He conceives of his gender as a choice because he rarely felt dysphoria when living as a girl, and now he doesn’t consider being a man easier because of his biology. In other words, for Cal, living as a man is a manifestation of him taking the genetic cards he’s been given and playing them in a way that suits his life. Milton has a similar attitude toward his Greek-American identity. He uses his Greek heritage when it suits him, primarily as a marketing gimmick, and still lives with his Greek-identifying family, but he ultimately chooses American habits, values, and mannerisms. As hinted at throughout the novel, fate and free will are not entirely separate but two related mechanisms that create a person’s life.

Although Cal finds freedom in the interest and desire he sees in the voyeurs at Octopussy’s Garden, this joy is short lived because it is based on another kind of othering: fetishization. Octopussy’s Garden derives its appeal from displaying bodies that society considers abnormal. It further mythologizes these bodies by giving the performers stage names that involve mythology, like mermaids and Greek gods. Therefore, the voyeurs do not accept Cal as he is but as Hermaphroditus, a fantastical being. That Cal must always be under the influence of drugs in order to perform hints at the incomplete nature of this liberation. As we’ve seen multiple times in Middlesex, an inability to look at something head on is a sign that a person considers that thing to be dirty or shameful. Cal’s participation in this kind of performance also brings to mind the vaudeville play about the minotaur, which eroticized the taboo and frightening nature of the minotaur. As Desdemona and Lefty erotized the minotaur, the voyeurs find Cal’s body fascinating because it is unusual and taboo. In narrator Cal’s descriptions of his dating life, he expresses a desire for a sexual relationship that more closely resembles something conventional and romantic, not a fetish, demonstrating that this type of sexual interest at Octopussy’s Garden could not fulfill him.