Orchids: My Intersex Adventure. Directed by Phoebe Hart. New York: Women Make Movies, 2010. 60 minutes.
Intersexion. Directed by Grant Lahood. Wellington, New Zealand: Ponsonby Productions Limited, 2011. 44 minutes.
I’m Just Anneke. Directed by Jonathan Skurnik. New York: New Day Films, 2010. 11 minutes.
The Family Journey: Raising Gender Nonconforming Children. Directed by Jonathan Skurnik. New York: New Day Digital, 2010. 14 minutes.
Documenting Intersex, Trans, and Gender Nonconforming Lives
Since the millennium, there has been a growing wave of intersex, trans, and genderqueer visibility in North America and around the globe. The four documentaries under review here offer powerful contributions to this increasing visibility. In particular, these films clarify the import of intersex, trans, and gender nonconforming voices, lives, and analyses to healthcare reform, struggles for human rights and social justice, efforts to rethink and remake kinship, and the formulation of more comprehensive critical understandings of the lived complexity of sex and gender in cultural contexts that often remain inhospitable or intolerant to people who are deemed to be outside of what Audre Lorde calls the mythical norm.1 Orchids: My Intersex Adventure and Intersexion focalize the stories and insights of people with intersex embodiments (an umbrella term for the myriad features and conditions of people born with sexual anatomies that biomedicine labels nonstandard). I’m Just Anneke and The Family Journey: Raising Gender Nonconforming Children emphasize the viewpoints of and challenges facing gender variant children and their families. Without conflating intersex and trans issues (as there are crucial differences between them), I review these four films together because each offers fresh and vital perspectives on the shifting and unstable meanings and materialities of sex and gender in the contemporary moment.
Orchids is an autobiographical documentary written and directed by Australian filmmaker Phoebe Hart that chronicles her personal experience as an intersex person and demonstrates the ways in which the dominant approach to people with atypical anatomies—medicalization, secrecy, silence, and shame—undoes family bonds and injures affected parties. The film simultaneously explores how breaking that silence and embracing rather than pathologizing bodily difference can remake identity and kinship in new and productive ways. Hart was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), as was one of her sisters. Yet because her parents followed the doctors’ advice and didn’t communicate openly with their children about this common medical condition, neither sister grew up knowing that the other had AIS and that they actually shared similar experiences of medical treatment and trauma. Subtitled My Intersex Adventure, Orchids is framed as both a coming of age narrative and a road trip film. The road trip at the heart of the documentary serves as a metaphor for moving from secrecy and shame to openness and acceptance. The documentary follows Hart and her sister as they drive across Australia to meet other “out” intersex individuals whom Hart previously connected with online. In the process, Hart’s film not only paints a compassionate portrait of people coming to terms with intersex, but crucially also interrogates rigidly defined constructs of gender, sexuality, and normality.
In contrast to Orchids’s autobiographical approach, Intersexion, directed by Grant Lahood, offers a more historically grounded account of the lives and critical perspectives of myriad people with intersex embodiments. Intersexion is comprised primarily of interviews with intersex individuals from New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Germany, the United States, South Africa, and elsewhere. Narrated by New Zealand-based counselor and intersex activist Mani Bruce Mitchell, Intersexion showcases the diversity of experiences and views within intersex communities. Interviewees discuss a range of issues including: medical and family histories of trauma, secrecy, and shame; the problem of nonconsensual infant genital surgery; the politics of sex and gender normalization; intersex identity formation; the intersections between intersex and other categories of difference including sexuality, gender, race, class, nationality, age, and ability; and the urgent need for medical reform and social change. Intersexion importantly positions intersex people as experts on their own bodies and lives. By engaging standpoint epistemology, Intersexion challenges the assumed authority of medical expertise and demonstrates how subjugated knowledges destabilize hegemonic ways of seeing, being, and knowing. In addition, the film devotes significant screen time to the agency of people with intersex in forming a transnational intersex social movement focused on preserving human rights and bodily integrity. Therefore, what makes Intersexion compelling is not only the broad range of subjects interviewed in the documentary, but also the extraordinary frankness, courage, humor, and insight of its subjects, who include many of the original members of the first intersex activist organization in the world, the Intersex Society of North America.
While Intersexion makes palpable the pain and trauma intersex people have experienced, it goes a step beyond other documentaries on the subject by historicizing the medicalization of intersexuality. Lahood’s documentary delves into mid-twentieth century psychoendocrinologist John Money’s role in establishing the dominant paradigm of intersex treatment, which centers on surgical, hormonal, and psychosocial normalization. As historian of medicine Alice Dreger points out in the film, though many of Money’s ideas have been discredited in recent years, his research continues to shape contemporary practices of intersex management. Moreover, Intersexion explores the ethical critiques of Money’s paradigm by intersex activists, their allies, and scholars in critical intersex studies. Intersexion is thus particularly productive for teaching about intersex issues because it questions the role of gender and sex normalization in constraining the lives of intersex individuals while also exploring how these issues are only one component of a much larger patchwork of ethical, political, cultural, medical, familial, and personal concerns that shape the varied lives of intersex people.
The issues of gender, freedom, and family are also at stake in the short documentaries I’m Just Anneke and The Family Journey: Raising Gender Nonconforming Children, both directed by Jonathan Skurnik. These documentaries each spotlight the process of living with gender nonconforming family members and the challenges of accepting and celebrating their gender differences in a social environment that pathologizes and stigmatizes gender nonconformity. I’m Just Anneke showcases a Canadian family’s effort to nurture their gender nonconforming child Anneke, a tomboy who “lives the consequences of not fitting in,” as her mother observes. Rather than rejecting her gender fluid identity, Anneke’s parents embrace it, and attempt to create a home and community where Anneke can flourish. Filmed when Anneke was 12 years old and approaching puberty, the documentary offers a portrait of trans-affirmative healthcare as Anneke, with her family’s support, decides to seek medical treatment, specifically hormone-blockers, to buy her time, as her mother explicates, “to decide where she’s at in that fluid place, whether it’s a male place or a female place she’s transitioning to.” I’m Just Anneke enables viewers to empathize with a new generation of parents and children who question the binary gender paradigm.
In contrast with I’m Just Anneke’s focus on a single family, The Family Journey consists of interviews with a heterogeneous range of largely North American family members of gender nonconforming children, as well as with some trans and gender nonconforming children themselves, including Anneke and her family from I’m Just Anneke. These interviews reveal the real struggles that many parents and siblings go though as they attempt to come to terms with having a gender nonconforming family member. In many cases, critically interrogating dominant understandings of sex, gender, and personhood entails a process of emotional and intellectual transformation. According to Pam, introduced as a “Mother of a Transgirl,” “Changing the binary gender system of these two strict boxes will benefit everyone, will benefit everybody’s kid and every child as they grow up.” The challenge, she declares, is to change “people’s perception of gender in general.” Like the other three documentaries reviewed above, The Family Journey suggests that neither gender nor sex need be as rigidly defined as society often makes them out to be. Instead, when approached with an open mind, sex and gender are revealed to be sites of ongoing discovery and transformation, immeasurable complexity, and creativity and resilience. As Tiffany, a “Sister of a Transboy” in The Family Journey, says: “There’s way more than two genders. If you can count, you know that. You know, there’s just so much about gender we still don’t know.”
1 Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (New York: The Crossing Press, 1984), 116.