Though of course we have no recordings of his artistry, it was said of the great 18th-century singer Farinelli (named Carlo Broschi at birth) that he sang like an angel. His supernaturally endowed voice had glass-breaking intensity, phenomenal range, and a ringing tone with staying power. He achieved the daunting melismas and cadenzas of Baroque opera with ease and grace. Reported to have had a range of 3½ octaves, the ability to sing 250 notes in a single breath, and an uncanny ability to hold one note for longer than one minute, Farinelli also performed nature-defying trills.
Yes, his was the voice of the century.
But there was a tragic reason why Farinelli's voice was so extraordinary. He was castrated at the age of ten in order for his amazing boy soprano voice to continue into adulthood. After castration, he grew into an androgynous beauty known for playing female as well as male roles.
Castration remained a practice for several centuries in Europe, but gradually disappeared as people gradually came to realize that castration of young boys cruelly condemned them to truncated lives. Humane societies began to forbid the practice, and gradually Baroque opera male roles began to be performed by mezzo-sopranos. Hence the term "trouser roles," many of which have been brilliantly played in current times by mezzos such as the redoubtable Marilyn Horne.
But here in the USA, supposedly an enlightened country which will continue to forbid castration of young boys, one presumes, a couple appears intent on doing by chemical means what a knife would otherwise achieve.
In a story that surfaced some months ago, the parents (both female) of "Tammy" (formerly known as "Tommy") are giving their eleven-year-old son hormone-blocking injections designed to retard puberty on the spurious grounds that the child has wanted to be a girl from the time he was three years old. Worse yet, their actions have received support from the extended GLBT and liberal community, just as castration of boys received support from 18th-century parents who pressured their little boys to become androgynous singers.
It is almost unbelievable that the obvious has to be pointed out: giving a kid hormone-blocking drugs is just as abusive as cutting off his testicles. The fact that he says he wants to be a girl does not excuse the abuse. Nor does the hope of restoring normal hormones at the age of fourteen or fifteen, should he choose to develop normally, excuse the abuse.
If one takes to heart the comments on the YouTube video linked here, the poor kid appears to be mentally challenged and easily manipulated. Who knows but that he intuitively picked up the that fact both his "mothers" really wanted a girl? Could being raised by two "mommies" have led him to think that something is wrong with being a boy and that he won't be accepted if he's not also a female? Could the absence of a male role model have led him to think that the preferred sex is female?
Kids are notoriously impressionable and will do almost anything to be loved.
Further, it's well-known that children love to fantasize about being someone or something other than themselves. Imagination is part of what it means to be a child.
When I was a very little girl, I pretended to be a horse. I even fashioned a bridle and a sort of nose bag for Quaker oats. Besides reading every book about horses I could get my hands on, including my beloved and well-worn copy of Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, I actually started neighing and galloping around like crazy. I thought I'd add a human component by becoming a female centaur who toted a bow and quiver. Cool -- I could shoot down all my tormentors from my own horseback.
Yes, it was quite a ride. My pragmatic and phlegmatic parents ignored me, figuring my temporary imaginative insanity would eventually fade. They were right. The horsey role-play was all in my imagination and didn't match the reality of my embodiment and destiny as a woman.
Should my parents have felt obligated to fulfill my chimerical fantasy by finding a Dr. Moreau who would try to oblige my fantasies by engineering a new anatomy? Should they have transformed my room into a stall? Bought me a saddle and bridle? Changed my daily diet to oats for energy and bran mash for colic?
Here is the crux of the matter: lots of, if not most, little boys and girls think about what it would be like to be the other sex. Boys sometimes try on their sisters' and mothers' dresses and high heels. Girls often stomp around in their fathers' shoes and wind ties around their necks. Such behavior doesn't mean that most won't eventually sort things out according to their sexual destiny -- with proper guidance.
And guidance is the key. Good parents will guide their children, helping them to become the men and women they were born to be. Good parents won't decide that a three-year-old has the ability to determine that he is not a boy but is actually a girl. Good parents will patiently teach by example, instruction, and spiritual guidance just what it means to be a human being -- male or female. Good parents will see male and female as good in and of themselves. They will not do as the great poet Rainer Marie Rilke's mother did -- namely, decide that they want a girl rather than a boy and therefore raise a male child as a female.
Last, it must be said: good parents won't castrate their boys in order they become girls. Bad parents who insist on so doing should have their children removed from the home.
Farinelli, were he to have been offered the choice, would doubtless have loved to sing as a tenor or bass, not as a soprano. He and other eunuchs doubtless would have welcomed the chance for marriage and fatherhood -- if they had been given that chance.
For the truth of the matter is that the identity of little boys who are castrated does not become that of a woman, but that of a eunuch -- and as eunuchs in other countries such as India know only too well, to become one ensures a life of isolation and pain.
No matter what strained, convoluted, and politically correct logic exhorts the practicalities, necessities, or advantages of the castration of children, be it temporary or permanent, the law must forbid it, just as it finally did in the case of opera castrati long ago.
Fay Voshell holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where she was awarded the Charles Hodge Prize for excellence in systematic theology. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.