Answers to Questions
When a child is born, the first question that is usually asked is whether it is a boy or a girl. We never stop to consider another alternative, the child could be neither. There are people who choose not to live within the confines of the gender binary and who are proud to be intersex. We know that nature loves variety just as we should.
This documentary looks at intersex in a humorous vein and we hear and see stories of what it is like to live as intersex in a world where one is made to feel invisible. Many intersex individuals have no idea of such until they hit puberty. Others ﬁnd out this startling discovery much later on in life. Of course this is quite a serious issue for many. In addition to those who are proud intersex people, there are those who have been traumatised my the stigma of being intersex. Many of these blame surgeons for telling them they are abnormal and need to be ﬁxed, through genital mutilation – erasing who one is through surgery and medicine so that one is assigned to ﬁt into the ordinary and set pattern in which the world exists.
Although it was seen that this genital ‘correction’ provided a solution to a very difficult situation, we do know that gender often is be a learned condition. Through the 60’s and 70’s many believed that nurture was more important than nature. However, hospital practices have been slow to change.
This film brings hope for the future of the intersex. The concept remains uncomfortable for many yet we see that the boundaries of gender are blurring. This tolerance of difference is exactly what a free society should promote. Today when we fill our applications for whatever reason, we are asked to check a box that is either marked male or female. How we react to that is seen in director Grant Lahood’s compelling new documentary “Intersexion” in which he candidly searches for answers to rarely asked questions.
The word “intersex” is not a common household term. In earlier days and times, an intersex person was referred to as a ’true hermaphrodite.’ Those who are intersex are characterized by genitalia that are so ambiguous that doctors cannot easily answer whether the child is a boy or a girl. One in every 2,000 babies in the world are born as ’sexually ambiguous.’ With an estimated 3 million intersex adults living in the world, “Intersextion” states, “Intersex isn’t uncommon, it’s just unheard of.”
We hear from New Zealand therapist and intersex person Mani Mitchell. Born and first raised as Bruce, and then as Margaret, Mitchell seeks to talk to and meet other intersex adults willing to share their stories. Even with the large numbers of intersex adults believed to exist, few are willing to come out of the shadows and have their stories told… until now.
As we watch and listen to Lahood’s interviews with numerous intersex adults uncovers heartbreaking sagas of how these adults were treated as children. Many moved back and forth from being raised as a girl, to a boy, back again, or vice-versa. Many suffered unnecessary surgeries by unenlightened doctors, crippling them sexually and physical, solely because their parents were forced to choose their sex while they were still juveniles. Some intersex adults had absolutely no idea of their differences until later into adulthood. Some, but not all, suffered sexual, physical, and emotional abuse as children, because of the world’s ignorance in this rarely discussed field.
“Intersex” intelligently and lovingly brings these “in-betweens” out of the closet and gets them to discuss, first hand, their need to identify, and negotiate, the labels and categories that society has created for us all. Understandably angry, strong and surviving, they refuse shame and courageously break their secrecy for the sake of those that will come after them.
Mitchell, Lahood, and the subjects of “Intersexion” share a special bond that, until only recently, begins to provide solidarity in the knowledge that they are not alone. Their message is simple: “Love your children for who they are. Being different is not only OK, but should also be the norm.”
Why is it that, when forms ask “Are you male or female?”, there’s never a box for “No”? Perhaps it doesn’t seem like this should matter. You might think everybody is one or the other; or that those who blur the boundaries are vanishingly few in number. You’d be wrong on both counts. Even the most conservative estimates suggest there are millions of intersex people out there. Some of them may be your friends. Why can’t you tell? Well, because most such people have been taught that a failure to ‘pass’ as male or female (and, preferably, identify that way) would mean instant social exclusion and possibly violence. Shame is the order of the day – such shame that, historically, it has been routine practice to erase case records so that nobody knows such possibilities exist.
This documentary aims to set the record straight. Carefully navigating related politics and sticking to a consensus approach, it outlines the protocols that have ben used in recent history to manage the existence of socially challenging bodies. It talks about the huge variety of intersex variations, some of which are obvious at birth whilst others are only diagnosed later in life, if at all. It talks about the surgeries still commonly performed on intersex babies with the purported aim of helping them ‘fit in’, often leaving them devoid of sexual sensation for the rest of their lives. The other medical problems that often stem from such treatments, and the particular health risks facing intersex people more generally, are underexplored, but that’s forgiveable given the considerable amount of information on other issues the film packs into its running time. It may also be an artefact of a decision to eschew some of the grimmest stuff in favour of an approach that highlights the positives in at least some of its subjects’ lives – for the many intersex people who feel isolated, this will prove an inspiring piece of work, showing that being born different need not inevitably lead to inescapable suffering.
Given that many viewers of this film will be learning about intersex issues for the first time, it has to balance providing a solid overview of the basics with engaging an uncertain audience and respecting its subjects. This is something it does very well, largely thanks to a series of strong interviews with charismatic individuals whose personal stories combine into a complex whole. Issues of gender identity – those who feel male, female or neither – are explored with such simplicity and honesty that they are unlikely to alienate viewers. The film challenges conventional notions about what makes a ‘real’ man or woman, and also looks at prejudices and expectations around sexual orientation that have contribued to the identities imposed on many intersex people from outside. Reference is made to famous cases that call into question the notion of gender as an entirely social phenomenon, and several of the film’s participants enthuse about their lives in San Francisco, a city whose liberal attitudes make life far easier.
There are some horrific stories here, and those who have been subject to unwanted surgeries themselves will find parts of it hard to watch. Anyone who has supported campaigns against female genital mutilation will be left wondering why countries that condemn it still allow this sort of thing to go on. Others will wonder simply how such a big issue has been hidden for so long. Intersexion is a vital film not only in bringing it to public view, but in doing so primarily through the stories of intersex people themselves – people tired of being squeezed out of society, now setting their own agenda. Not just a footnote on an already crowded equalities agenda, but part of the world like anybody else.