Golden Boy (Abigail Tarttelin) is a grippingly innovative take on coming of age, sexuality, and family dynamics, as depicted by the life of protagonist Max Walker, a popular intersex teen. The novel explores heavy, complex themes with a disarming wholesomeness that elicits nostalgia for the novels of adolescence, making it a perfect fit for teen readers as well as adults.
Max escaped “normalizing” infant genital surgery, and is leading a sunny, successful life before being raped by a close family friend. Some have criticized Tarttelin’s protagonist as being unbelievably undisturbed and mainstream, but as someone who actually is intersex, I found his character so believable that I thought for a minute she might have modeled him after me! (Which is entirely possible since my story’s out there a lot.) He’s a jock: I was a cheerleader (kind of by accident, long story, but you get the point). He dates a pretty, popular girl: my first love was pretty and voted “Most Popular.” He gets pregnant after getting raped: I got pregnant after getting raped. He’s always felt okay about being intersex: me too! (See what I mean?)
This brings me to the first of the three reasons I loved Golden Boy.
1. It avoids annoying, unfounded stereotypes. Assumptions about intersex people being lonely, socially awkward types with no love life have abounded for decades. Unlike the droves that speculate about the difficulties inherent to being intersex, Tartellin boldly envisions an alternative: positive identity despite difference. And this, in fact, is what I’ve found to be true of the intersex people I’ve met who, like Max and myself, weren’t subjected to the trauma of nonconsensual “normalizing” surgeries.
2. It covers some uniquely intersex sexual and romantic themes. Max’s rape brings up the issue of internalized homophobia, and how his intersex-ness is sexually attractive to someone not ready or willing to identify as gay. I’ve dealt with this issue – and others related to intersex complicating sexual orientation – for decades, but have rarely seen it addressed in popular culture. Pretty cool.
Also, Max’s relationship illustrates a specific type of intersex romance, where your partner is one of the few that knows about your difference. It made me nostalgic for that innocent time before I came out as intersex, when my girlfriends knew I was entrusting them with information about myself – with a whole side of myself really – that no one else got to have. I’d never want to go back to being closeted, but the intimacy of sharing such a deep secret was pretty special.
3. It’s got a radically non-binary, pro-intersex message. While Max may be mainstream in some ways, he also says, about not having his female anatomy removed: “I’m so, so glad I didn’t have the other surgery…. My whole body would be a reminder, every day, that I wasn’t brave enough just to be myself.” That’s a downright revolutionary statement in a society so committed to male and female body archetypes that intersex babies are forced to remove gender ambiguity, gender variant kids are given hormone blockers to avoid gender ambiguity, and you’re hard pressed to find women in the media with small breasts.
In short, Golden Boy is a thoroughly engrossing novel with a pioneering perspective on intersex peeps, a strikingly effective portrayal of the pain caused by rape, and a lot to offer anyone who loves a good underdog story. It also went above and beyond my expectations as an intersex activist. In one scene, for example, Max muses about the specialists who “treat” healthy intersex kids: “You have to be pretty into yourself to think you can play a part in defining the identity of a bunch of people you don’t know…”. My sentiments exactly – bravo!
Hida Viloria is Chairperson of OII, the world’s largest intersex advocacy organization, and director of its American affiliate, OII-USA. She has written about intersex in The Advocate, Ms., The Global Herald, CNN.com, and others, been a guest on numerous television shows including 20/20 and Oprah, and appeared in various documentaries (Intersexion, One in 2000, Gendernauts). You can follow her blog, Intersex and Out, on Tumblr.