Intersexions, a film by Mani
Mani Bruce Mitchell in New Zealand talks about her experience of being reassigned from being a boy to girl in early childhood, because she had ambiguous genitalia, her surgery at eight, and how she now identifies as neither male nor female.
Alice Dreger explains that ambiguous genitalia occurs in more than one in two thousand people.
Mani asks what it is like to live in a world that has binary genders, and to sit somehwere between the two, and be invisible, and why the phenomena is so secret. Mani sets out to interview fellow intersex New Zealanders. She interviews Yann, who explains that people are reluctant to speak because they have been trained to hide and bought up to be ashamed of their difference.
Presumably Mani was unable to draw on any other intersex people to interview in New Zealand, as she says of the 2,000 people in New Zealand who are intersex, most are reluctant to speak on camera. So, instead visits the USA, where she meets up with former members of ISNA, predominantly made up of people who were featured in the first ‘Hermaphrodites Speak’ video.
“When I was born my genitals didn’t look very much like a boy’s genitals” says a disembodied voice talking over some photos of a very male looking toddler, which is how we are introduced to Bo Laurent, the first other intersex person Mani was aware of. Bo describes how she was diagnosed as being a girl at 18 months, and had surgery to reinforce this. She explained that her parents were instructed to change her name to that of a girl, get rid of any photos etc. that would have identified her as a boy, and to move to a different location.
The film cuts to a scene where Mani and Alice Dreger pore over a book showing detailed anatomic drawings of ambiguous genitalia, while the narrator explains how surgery became used to alter this, and render them invisible.
Mani talks about the doubt about whether Tiger Devore was male or female when he was born, and he then describes his genitals and explains from his first surgery at 3 months until he was ten years old, he experienced a dozen surgeries, the infections, and trying to find out from his parents what was happening.
Peter Trinkl also had ambiguous genitalia, which he describes as having his genitals pushed up inside, so he couldn’t pee properly. Mani explains how he was raised as a boy, but discovered early on that he was not, and his genitals were not at all like those of his peers, and how his parents had been told to raise him as a boy.
The film talks about the approach to intersex developed by John Money’s team at John Hopkins in the 1950’s who originated in a backwater town in New Zealand called Morrinsville. Dreger explained that the gender theory he subscribed to was based on the idea that gender was based on nurture, how people were raised, rather than how they were born. He used intersex to try to prove this, and that if you raised an intersex child as a boy or girl, they would end up as a heterosexual man or woman with no issues about their gender.
Mani then interviews Michel Reiter in Germany, who was born with a penis and assigned male at birth. Two weeks later, his parents were told he had to be reassigned female because his chromosomes were female. The words “Michel was surgically transformed from a boy to a girl” appear across a picture of him as a toddler… “and he became Birgette”, and from age eight he had to undergo vaginal dilation twice a year.
Jen Pagonis was raised as a girl, and discovered she had XY chromosomes at age 18. She had inguinal gonads removed at 18 months, her clitoris was removed at three because it was seen as being too big.
Professor Milton Diamond was shown as the voice of dissent to this practice from the start. He did not believe that intersex people were best suited to proving Money’s gender theory. He explains that the medical community did not question this, and Alice Dreger explains that the approach was asserting authoritatively within the medical community as “this is what we do”.
Next Mani interviews Lynnell Stephanie Long, who was also assigned male and had ambiguous genitalia, and had surgery to confirm her as a boy, but never felt comfortable as a little boy, and saw herself as a little girl. She later reassigned to female as an adult.
Peter Trinkl talks about the distress as he approached adolescence of being with boys in the locker room & showers, and having a much smaller penis than the others. Tiger Devore describes how he had to fabricate stories about what he had been doing during vacations, when he had actually been in hospital.
In Australia, Gina Wilson talks about her experience of child abuse because from age eleven, because she was raised as male but was different. She was dressed as a girl for the abuse, and photographed in a way that focused on her difference. Mani explains that sexual abuse was a traumatic part of her early life as well. David Vandertie talks about how he sees it as being caught up by a violent and sadistic paedophile ring. Mani explains that one of the problems of being raised in shame and secrecy is that intersex children fall victim to sexual predators. David explains that because he was intersex, that made his body more interesting, of more value, to this type of person.
Mani explains that the secrecy can continue into teens and beyond. Jen and Howard talk about the persistent surgery and inadequate outcomes. Then Mani turns to Hida Vilora as somebody who escaped surgery, and ended up fine despite not having genitals that were obviously male or female genitals. Jim Costich talks about how he first noticed he was different when his borther was born, who was different. His parents resisted any surgery, and as Jim seemed happier as a boy, so they raised him that way, and he was happy. Dani-Lee Harris was born with his parents expecting a boy from pre-natal tests, but when she was born, appeared to be a girl. Not having periods and having a large clitoris led her to find out in adulthood she was intersex. Hida explains that having a large clitoris is a very positive thing in sex.
Mani describes how medicine made intersex people disappear, conforming them to male or female, and goes on to explain that it did not all go away, and keeping it secret did not make it OK. Bo Laurent describes her shame and complete emotional breakdown upon discovering that she was a true hermaphrodite, and had at one time been a boy called Brian Sullivan. David talks about the deep and intense depression and self-questioning he fell into, and how he fell apart. Bo Laurent described how she had wanted to kill herself, but it was her anger with the surgeon that led to realise it was not the surgery that was destroying her, but the shame. This led her to post a letter to Science announcing she was starting ISNA. David relates how he picked up the magazine in a bookstore, and the effect realising there were others like this had on him. Mani explains how she herself came to respond to an invitation to be at the first meeting.
Mani says she owes Bo a huge debt of gratitude, and thinks she would not be alive today if not for Bo. Hida explains what it was like to share things with others, and how she realised just how traumatised some of these people were. Cheryl explains how people had treated her like a freak, cut her up, lied to her, harmed her in ways that prevent her from being sexually or romantically intimate. Hida started to break into tears as she describes how she used to feel survivor guilt, but now feels really blessed that she escaped that.
Mani talks about them as being part of a generation that were surgically and hormonally assigned to fit neatly into male or female, and left damaged as a result. Dreger describes the sort of problems like pain, incontinence, reduced sexual sensation that accompanies genitals that rarely ended up looking like ‘normal’ genitals at all. Tiger speaks about how he is very angry about the genitals that were taken away from him, the sensation he doesn’t have, and would have preferred to have had a lot more say over the life, the body and the identity he would have had. Hida emphasises that mutilating a child’s genitals is not going to produce a normal happy child.
Dreger explains that it is likely that there are people who are happy they were treated under Money’s system, but that if there are, she has not met them. Bo points out that since people started coming out against genital surgery, nobody has come forward to say they benefited from it. Mani explains that Money’s system has persisted for a long time, and hospital practices are still slow to change, despite it being discredited. Peter points out it is still happening every day. Mani says this is because it provides a solution to a difficult problem of what do you do when you cannot answer the question, is it a boy or a girl? Tiger explains that the parents are told the child has a deformity of the genitals, and the surgeons can easily fix this with a a couple of simple surgeries. Anxious parents go along with this, obviously. Jim explains “we can take your hermaphrodite child, guess what they would have been if they weren’t what they are, and then turn them into something they are not, so it’s easier for you… It’s a rip off”
Mani asks what they should do instead, Tiger smiles and explains we should say “you have a healthy intersex child, congratulations, the kid’s going to be OK, and when it comes time the kid will be able to get educated and make a choice about what kinds of surgery they want to have, or not have any surgeries at all…” and the same for hormonal intervention and identity.
Jim talks about how he didn’t grow, and his parents took him to a gender clinic, and his parents were told they had bought him up the wrong way and he would be unable to have a normal life the way he was with the genitals he had, and it would have been easier if they had raised him a girl. Hida talked about how her gynaecologist had been very disapproving of the size of her clitoris, and had wanted to run tests on her which she herself couldn’t see any point in, as there was nothing wring with her. The attitude Jim received was the could not live as an adult male without a set of genitals that are usually expected for men.
Mani explains that many people have no idea they are intersex until puberty, as they do not have anything unusual about their genitals, but when things that are supposed to in puberty don’t, they are still expected to conform to their assigned gender. Caitlin Childs relates how when her periods didn’t start she went to the doctor, and Esther Morris had a similar experience. Both were found not to have a vagina, and Esther was told she would need operations to create one so they could have sex with their husbands one day in the future, and had vaginal construction surgery.
Gavan Coleman has XXY chromosomes, and Klinefelter’s Syndrome. He describes how he was undervirilised into his mid twenties, because he did not produce enough testosetrone, and never really had a puberty. He has a small penis and testes, and in puberty began to develop small breasts. As a result he was bullied at school. He talks about the difficulty of sexual activity, in sharing a body one is not oneself comfortable with, and the risk of rejection.
Lynnell talks about the time she married a woman as a man, and the difficulties in sustaining that relationship because he was so feminine. Mani says she can relate to this, and she has never had a loving relationship, because as a child she was told her body was so horrendous it had to have pieces cut off. Peter talks about how people like him often get put in the “faggot bag”, because they do not conform to usual notions of masculinity, which is a very painful place to be. Peter identifies as heterosexual, and talks about how relationships never went anywhere because people would see his difference and freeze up, and it would be disastrous. He became asexual, and as an elderly guy, alone, outside the mainstream, is still read as gay and some see him as a repressed gay person.
Sally Gross talked about growing up as a boy in Apartheid South Africa with ambiguous genitals. He knew something was ‘wary’, but not sure what it was, or that it had something to do with “plumbing”. As he approached puberty he experienced confusion, he developed no orientation, but was asexual. He eventually became ordained a Dominican Priest. His genitalia were ambiguous, but he did not realise the significance of this until he was in his forties, because he was naïve, he says. People who did not know him often took him for a woman. He began to realise there was a problem, and was advised to live as a female experimentally, and had to leave the order.
Tamara Beck talks about her deceased partner Max Beck, with whom she started out a relationship as two women. Max had been assigned female, and never thought this was up for discussion, although was always very male identified. Max had gone to a new endocrinologist, and was offered a choice for the first time in his life, and asked whether he wanted oestrogens or testosterone. He tried testosterone, and his driving license was changed to reflect this. Max died of vaginal cancer in 2008, which his being male made treatment more complicated.
Mani explains that much of what she sees reflected is the effect of intolerance of difference, and how this should all be no big deal. She meets a gay couple, David Cameron and Pete Tannen, and David is intersex; they talk about how people are accepted this way in San Francisco, as does Hida.
Suegee and Anne Tamar-Mattis talk about how their relationship is accepted, even though it is not clear whether they are two women or whatever (Suegee is intersex). Anne considers Sugee an incredible person.
Mani explains that it is possible for intersex people to find love no matter where they live. Carol talks about how even though she did not want another relationship with a man, there was something different about her partner David (Vandertie) that drew her to him: “When you love someone, it doesn’t matter what their anatomy might be… it didn’t make any difference at all”. Jim tells us that he has never been single for any appreciable time in his life. Mani thinks this about people being comfortable in their own skin.
Jim eventually discovered in his forties that he had XX chromosomes and not XY, and discovered he had a vagina.
Mani explains that the growth of the web has allowed on-line support groups to flourish and people who it was thought would never meet anybody else like them, have been able to meet and share with others.
Gavan jokes about his small penis, while Jim explains that there is more to being a man or woman than just a genital – people have genitals, people are not genitals. Tiger explains it is so common it cannot be hidden, and people agree that it is OK being intersex, but the things that accompany it often aren’t.
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