The documentary Intersexion will be showing this month at the Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival, which runs through February 28. Intersexion shows this coming Sunday. If you can't make it to Australia this month, you have another chance March 14-24 at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Tickets for MQFF go on sail on Thursday. The program will also be released on that date.
The documentary was created by New Zealand filmmaker Grant Lahood (Kombi Nation (2003), Lemming Aid (1994), The Singing Trophy (1993)).
When I heard it was one in 2,000 I was amazed. If you'd asked me before I would have thought it was one in millions. And then I asked myself why I didn't know any intersex people? Why they are so invisible?
Mani Bruce Mitchell is the most visible intersex New Zealander. Mani didn't discover that she was a boy named Bruce for her first few years of life until she was well into her adulthood.
[Yes. Pronouns are a problem here. I invite you to try to go a day without using any, remembering that "it" is not allowed to be used in reference to a human being.]
I'm not male or female. I'm intersex.
Mitchell narrates the documentary but the documentary is not Mitchell's story. Rather Mitchell helped Lahood gather 20 intersex individuals who were interviewed to create the film.
New Zealand native Dr. John Money developed the model which governed the treatment of children with ambiguous genitalia when he was at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore.
That model used surgery, secrecy, synthetic hormones and gender reinforcement to create what everyone hoped were straight normal boys and girls – the idea being that doctors could produce healthy and happy men and women by intervening early in an intersex child’s life. Usually that meant a family secret that had to be kept at all costs.
Mitchell was raised as a girl after surgery to feminize he/r body. It wasn't until s/he was 40 that s/he finally discovered her medical records and learned the truth of what had been done to he/r.
The documentary introduces us to:
Chicago paramedic Lynnell Stephanie Long:
I came out so many times. I came out as a straight guy and a gay guy. I came out as a transsexual. I came out as a straight girl. I finally came out as a lesbian – because I was finally comfortable with me.
--Lynnell Stephanie Long
South African former Roman Catholic priest Sally Gross, who was kicked out the church when his intersex condition became known and he voiced his desire to live as a woman.
Jim Costich, from upstate New York, who lived his entire life as a man, but recently discovered he has XX chromosomes.
I wasn’t a partially developed male, I was an overdeveloped female. Here I am 44 years old and I find out I’ve got another piece of playground equipment I didn’t know I had. I wasn’t a man missing testicles. I was a man with a vagina!
Hida Viloria of San Francisco, who celebrates her extra-large clitoris and has lived as both a man and a woman:
Wow, I am doing things here that girls are not supposed to be able to do!
Max Beck, a man who tragically died of vaginal cancer.
These stories make clear that it is not being born with ambiguous genitals that has led to the pain in the lives of these people, but the fact that they have been taught that their bodies are shameful and must be kept hidden.
Even people who were never told what was different about them by their parents sensed that something was being kept from them. For example one interviewee says he was told by his mother that he couldn't play with a girl's toy because 'we're supposed to raise you as a boy' not because 'you are a boy'.
Because this is something no-one ever talks about, every new parent of an intersex child is faced with a situation which they believe is a rare medical emergency. As one of our interviewees says: ‘intersex isn’t uncommon, it’s just unheard of.
Because of the culture of secrecy surrounding intersex childhoods, children with ambiguous genitals are more prone to be sexually abused.
Intersex children make good victims because they are used to keeping secrets. Sexual predators pick-up on that.
Because their bodies are frequently given invasive treatment by doctors, intersex people often learn to dissociate from their bodies. The end result of the surgeries may be that the individuals are no longer able to experience sexual pleasure.
Nobody that we spoke to agrees to childhood genital surgery unless its a matter of life of death. Everybody thinks people should be in the position to make an informed choice themselves about what they want for their bodies. There are situations where some surgery is necessary, where there are complication with passing urine. But in the majority of cases it's appearance medicine.
I hope this documentary will show everyone that the ‘shame and secrecy’ model hasn’t worked – and that intersex children can grow up to make informed choices about their own bodies.
I think that one thing I've realized from making this film is that there's no neat line. There's a spectrum and a continuum. It's not neat and tidy: that's male and that's female; that's gay and that's straight. It made me realize that the world is not as clear cut as you think it is.
And that is why intersex visibility is important to transpeople. If the people of the world were aware that there is not a neat and tidy line between male and female, between men and women, then our lives would be undoubtedly easier to live.
Zoe Brain shares this conversation from a recent meeting of the Australian Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee at the end of January:
Senator PRATT: So you would like to see, if religious exemptions were to continue, intersex status specifically taken out of those exemptions?
Gina Wilson: Certainly. To allow anybody to discriminate against intersex people and to allow religious organisations to have an exemption from the law is no different to allowing a religious organisation to discriminate on the basis of colour of skin or a disability that you were born with.
Senator BRANDIS: No, it is not, because there is an ethical difference.
Gina Wilson: We are born differently.
Senator BRANDIS: The church says, rightly or wrongly, that in its view certain behaviours are sins. You might have said to that—
Gina Wilson: Senator Brandis, this is not about our behaviours.
Gina Wilson: It is not a matter of our behaviour; it is a matter of how we are born. We are not behaving like anything. It is not a matter of sexual orientation. We have the same range of sexual orientations as the rest of the community. It is not about our gender identity. We have the same range of gender identities as the rest of the community. It is about how we are physically born. That is like if a person is physically born with black skin. If you give a religious organisation the right to discriminate on the basis that they were born with black skin, that is the same as giving them the right to discriminate about people who were born with anatomical differences of sex. Because my genitals are different or because my hormones are different, they have a right to exclude me from service, exclude me from a school or exclude me from employment, and that just seems bizarre—because of the way I was born, because I was born physically different. It is not a choice. It is not an orientation. It is not an identity. I was born physically different.
Ms. Wilson clearly misunderstands Senator Brandis' intent. He's speaking about the behavior of refusing to remain silent. In his mind he believes his religion thinks even mentioning an alternative to being born male or female is saying that his God has made a mistake, and the senator cannot countenance that. The whole subject is therefore sinful.