Review of intersex film "XXY" and lecture "X's & Y's" at SAIC
I recently attended two events at The School of the Art Institute, both focused on intersex persons. The first evening was a film, followed by a lecture presentation the next night.
XXY (2007), Directed by Lucía Puenzo and starring Ines Ephron as Alex.
This film is extremely powerful as a direct result of simply being honest and unflinching. It is the story of adolescence, of family, of honesty and the differences in how people deal with bullying.
In summary, the film centers on Alex - a 15 year-old intersex child, who has identified as a female. She and her family live on the Ecuadorian seashore. Her father is a biologist, rescuing endangered and wounded sea creatures. One of the principal themes of the film is the presence of so many life forms. Throughout human history, shore dwellers have encountered new creatures both living and dead, where the land meets the deep unknown.
Alex's mother, Suli invites a surgeon, Ramiro, his wife Erika and their son Alvaro for a visit. Suli has not told her husband Kraken that Ramiro is here to observe Alex. He specializes in genital alteration surgery on intersex children. It seems as if the two women might be friends of some sort and they are accompanied by their teen son. She is interested in turning Alex into the daughter she wants to have. Alex has been taking hormones to suppress the development of male puberty body changes. Alex has stopped taking them.
They arrive at the beach house, where Alex is sitting under the porch, smoking a cigarette and looking up at the new arrivals through the floor boards. While that adults engage in customary pleasantries and the talk of arriving guests, Alvaro who is uninvolved, looks around to see Alex looking up at him. He is the only one aware of her presence.
Alex and Alvaro meet later on at the beach. She asks him to fuck. In the days that follow, the boy starts to figure that Alex is in some way unique. There is some mention of Alex's best friend, another boy having been told by Alex of her intersex status and the boy freaking out.
Alex pushes the issue of sex again and Alvaro insults her. Alex runs away to a boat shed to cry and Alvaro follows. They start making out and Alex mounts him. Alex's father wanders by and sees this. Alex looks up to see him watching, panics and runs off into the woods with Alvaro following. He catches up with Alex, who is worried that he thinks Alex is a freak. He tells Alex that he liked it. Alex, somewhat surprised, tells him that he is looking for something else - meaning boys.
Alex skips the family dinner that night, when a conversation occurs that illustrates the underlying tension of the philosophical debate at work regarding gender and identity. Ramiro offers wine to Alvaro, who declines. Ramiro insists, alluding to the onset of adulthood / manhood. Kraken objects to the bullying, stating that they moved away from the city to be away from bullies. This is the issue at the core of the film - the bullying of groups to define us all in terms of gender and identity.
Kraken is fighting to protect Alex's right to chose identity and for it to be respected and not obliterated by the arrogance and assault of others. He sees this as bullying. After the meal, he excuses himself while Suli tries to bring him back to the group - perhaps to break surgery idea to him. They have a strong series of communications where the Kraken informs her that he saw Alex fucking Alvaro in the ass, she tells him that Alex has stopped taking her pills and the Kraken lets on that he has figured out the reason Ramiro is here. Suli wants to get Alex to be "normal" and he wants Alex to be who Alex is.
Alex has run off to spend the night at a friend's house. This girl is the child of a man who works with Kraken in protecting the endangered turtle sanctuary.
During the night, Kraken opens up a box with news clippings about an intersex teen who had surgery to become male gendered. He drives to a filling station to see the man, staring at the man as he attends to the car. The man, aware of the intense gaze asks if he knows him - Alex's dad states "I have a daughter...a son." He invites Kraken inside for a coffee. The man shows a picture of when he was Alex's age. He describes how choosing the surgery was a natural choice for him. It is how he always felt himself to be. Alex's father describes the issue of making the right choice for Alex. The man says to Alex's father, "Making her afraid of her own body is the worst thing you can do to the child."
The next morning, Alex leaves her friend's house to find her father waiting outside. This is the first time they speak after he witnessed Alex and the boy fucking. They discuss the choices of Alex becoming male or female and him supporting Alex no matter which choice. Alex asks "what if there is no choice?" and they look at each other. He nods in understanding and agreement.
Walking home along the shore, Alex is attacked by boys in town. They pull off Alex's pants to see genitalia. It is an uncomfortable scene to watch, this rape. Before one of the boys can fuck Alex, the recently lost best friend shows up to break it up. He takes Alex home. Kraken and Ramiro head into town to confront the attackers. In a telling scene, Alex's father tells the fisherman whose son led the rape "Stay away from my daughter!" Turning immediately to the Ramiro, he yells "Stay away from my son!"
Later that night, Alex, her best friend and Alvaro are sitting on the beach, drinking and smoking. Alex gets up to piss (standing). The best friend tells Alvaro "She's too much for you" and goes to piss next to Alex. They wander off and Ramiro comes along to inform Alvaro that they are leaving. Drunk, Alvaro asks Ramiro if he thinks Alvaro will be talented like him. Ramiro says "no". Alvaro asks Ramiro if he likes the boy and he says "not much". Alvaro says that he doesn't like his father much, either. When told that they are leaving, Alvaro protests. Ramiro notes that he likes Alex and states, relieved that he's glad the boy likes girls. "I thought you were a fag."
The next morning, Alvaro and his family leave. He and Alex find time to be alone for a moment in a tender moment of first teen love. Tearful, tender and simple, the two of them live out that very basic experience of first love as it simultaneously appears and ends. In this moment, our shared humanity is brilliantly and simply expressed by two faces at the sea shore.
On the surface, this film is a story of first love. Looking further, this film is the story of how parents learn to embrace the choices their child makes instead of the choices they would make for their child. This choice is difficult enough when families are identifying by the gender binary.
Intersex makes the binary bullying impossible to ignore. Traditionally, the parents of intersex children are shamed and harassed by cultural bullying into mutilating their child to the detriment of the child and family alike. The gender binary refuses to embrace and support intersex. Gender binary societies punish intersex persons and their families by treating intersex as a disease, a reason for fear and shame. Acquiescing to mutilation and the bullying creates physical and emotional scars on the family and the intersex family member.
Fighting the binary is also painful, but if a family bonds together, loving each other as they are, they will at least have each other for acceptance. When confronted by bullies, resistance and submission are both painful choices.
In the juxtaposition of the two fathers, we see the impact bullying has outside the family and on the family. Ramiro, the surgeon gives in to bullies, becoming one. He is selfish, vain, dictatorial even empirical and unaware of his own child as the person he is. Kraken is an unflinching proponent for Alex as a person and a defendant for the family as the people they are. He and Alex have a strong bond, each knowing each other for the people they are. Both Ramiro and Kraken are people of science, but one views science as dominion and the other as inquiry. Both men work with living things. One to protect nature from humanity and extinction and the other to mold nature to humanity even if it means obliterating it.
The next evening, I saw a presentation by Intersex activist Jen Pagonis, entitled "X's & Y's" or "Exes and Why's". Jen, aka "pidgejen" introduced as intersex, asked us to consider what we thought of this topic before the presentation and to answer that question again at the conclusion. Jen addressed "the spectrum of gender" and asked who should decide the terms of identity and actions upon the bodies of intersex persons.
The presentation is a mixture of oration with text, images and video presented on screen to the audience.
Going over the history of how society addressed intersex, Jen starts with "the age of gonads", referring to the empirical scientific and medical era that came before the discovery of chromosomes. It means that medical and cultural authorities dictated gender based on the presence and condition of a penis or vagina. In this thinking, a small penis is a large clit. Intersex persons were put on display, photographed, illustrated and treated as a freak show.
Next, came the "age of surgery" when the dictatorial practice of gender binary medicine was facilitated by cutting away body parts that did not agree with the binary model. Surgery became a reason to remove testicles, carve a vagina like hole and declare the infant "a girl". Pretty fucked up and it turns out as bad as it sounds for both the child and the family.
"easier to dig a hole than build a pole" - John Money.
Jen discussed the shoddy science behind John Money and the untold damage wrought by the widespread, unquestioned adherence to his uninformed slaughter of intersex persons. He classified intersex persons as medical conditions to be treated. With absolutely no proof, he declared gender to be cultural suggestion, easily implanted by peer definition and surgery. Of the countless past examples of how very wrong, uninformed and destructive John Money's ideas are, one need only look at David Reimer. Money used Reimer as an experiment in the implementation of genital surgery and social instruction as gender defining factors. David's penis and testicles were removed, he was dressed up as a girl and told nothing of this. His life was an absolute disaster and John Money is entirely to blame for it.
Regarding surgery, Jen points out that for some intersex persons, surgery is a valid choice. What sucks about surgery is when the choice is not made by the person receiving the surgery.
Intersex persons are treated as disease, shame and fear by medical and psychological practices along with cultural phobias. Using John Money's theorizing, the lives of many intersex persons are marked by pressure on the family, emotional scars and most often - physical scars.
Photos of intersex persons with the black bar over their faces appear in medical publications - to this day. Jen points how the black bar does nothing to protect the subject from harm. It protects the subject from being a human being. One intersex person told of taking an intersex class in college only to see a picture of his/her self as a child, with the black bar. The photo was taken without that person's knowledge or permission. Many photos were taken of waking and sedated intersex persons, to be shown in text books, film, media - all without permission or awareness. This practice dates back to Victorian England.
Jen states, concerning physicians "what happened to each of us cannot be separated from all of us". In the prevailing and still dominant medical opinion / model, intersex persons are objects or problems - but not human.
Jen opened up the discussion to the group. The presentation is somewhat of an introduction to intersex conversations. Most of the attendees seemed to be versed in the language of gender variance already. There were some questions about difference between the term transgender and the term intersex. Jen's response was that some intersex persons may identify as transgender, but being intersex is not something that one declares. So, this was a bit of "preaching to the choir" in terms of the audience's familiarity to gender identity. Nonetheless, it was energetic, honest and engaging.
I recommend both Jen Pagonis' presentation and the film, XXY to anyone wishing for an opportunity to embrace the wonder and variety of human existence. If you embrace inquiry or want to celebrate the differences and similarities of our shared human experience, then either one of these is well worth your time.