On Sunday I had the opportunity to introduce XXY – a film about an intersex teenager. I thought others might be interested in what I said, so I thought I’d post it here. The film is available on DVD both in Europe and in North America.
XXY is a film that explores an experience, a way of being, that is unknown to many of us, and which is often hidden – by fear, sometimes by shame and by worry of stigma, or worse. I use the word experience because this is not a film about an “issue”. It doesn’t take a political or social position, or at least not an explicit one. It’s a film about two families and their struggles – and to me these feel like incredibly real families, and real struggles, that we can all identify with and relate to. That’s why I think it is a very powerful film – because it’s first and foremost about the characters, about how real people try to come to terms with this situation.
I need to throw a few pieces of jargon into the mix, although this is intended to inform, not to confuse. For people who find themselves in the situation XXY explores, labels can be very important, because they can be used to empower, or they can be used to limit, or to impose other people’s values on them. So I apologize in advance if the words I use cause anyone discomfort, but I have to choose, and use particular words.
The central character in the film, Alex, is intersex. An intersex person has physical characteristics of both sexes. That may not be something you have direct experience of, so you may be surprised to discover that it is by no means a rare situation. According to one set of criteria, as many as one per cent of live births may display some degree of visible sexual ambiguity. But in fact there are a huge range of intersex conditions, many of which are not apparent at birth and only come to light much later. Most intersex people dislike the antiquated term hermaphrodite, which is both limiting and may cause people to make particular assumptions.
There’s a lot of evidence that intersex is, at root, part of natural biological variation – it’s cetainly been observed for many thousands of years and also occurs in the animal kingdom. In our society this is usually seen as a cause of anxiety and for shame. The first question when a baby is born – unless you already think you know because of the ultrasound – is “Is it a boy or a girl?’ – so it’s perhaps understandable that parents are worried if this question cannot immediately be answered. What is less acceptable is the way that society, and the medical establishment have dealt with the situation. Until fairly recently, the way doctors addressed the issue of genital ambiguity was very simple. If there was a phallus that appeared, from the doctors’ perspective, not to be normal, they would get out a ruler and measure it. If it measured, I believe, over 2.5 centimetres, the verdict was that the child was a boy. If it was less than that, the child was viewed as a girl and the recommendation was for so-called corrective surgery, i.e. removal of the phallus and surgical construction of a vagina. That doctors and parents might presume to decide a child’s destiny, and life chances in such a rapid, arbitrary and callous way is shocking – yet this practice continued until, we think, the beginning of the 1990s. Sometimes, as I said, the situation was detected later in life, and often similarly brutal treatment was often imposed on many adolescent children, who had little or no say themselves. Treatment, and understanding, is now improving, but agonizingly slowly.
(A brief postscript to my introduction as origintally read out – it turns out that genital mutilation in the developed world is not as much as thing of the past as I thought)
There are a huge range of intersex conditions, of different manifestations of physical uncertainty. Some are apparent at birth. Some become apparent when expected changes at puberty do not happen, or when changes occur that were not expected. Some conditions are detectable at a genetic level – an unexpected combination of sex chromosomes – and some are not. In fact, although it makes for an arresting title, Alex does not, in fact, have XXY Syndrome, sometimes called Klinefelter’s Syndrome.
Intersex people may be very sure of their gender identity, or they may not. So some intersex people are also transgender, while some are not. Some people – myself included- think that transgenderism – the sense that your gender is at odds with your physical body – is a form of intersex. But the medical establishment has always tended to keep these things separate – and the diagnosis of transgenderism has tended to exclude any evidence of physical intersex conditions. This insistence puts people into categories that are not good for them, and not what they need to become properly themselves. The voices of the people concerned are not heard and not valued, and this slows down and limits access to treatment they need, sometimes imposes treatment that they don’t need, and can have negative effects on their life experience, educational attainments, job prospects and ability to integrate into society.
Sometimes adults who are intersex, or who it is thought might be intersex, are singled out for particularly poor treatment. One recent story in the news is that of Caster Semenya, the South African athlete, whose career was abruptly put on hold last year when the International Association of Athletics Federation subjected her to a gender test.
Both the trans and intersex communities – which are distinct, but overlapping – are finding ways for their voices to be heard. Again – agonizingly slowly, but there are more and more positive signs.
So what is are key challenges for intersex people? One is that being intersex is seen as a “problem” which needs “correcting”. So society judges their bodies, and concludes that bodies which challenge some imagined norm of what it is to be male or female must be somehow “normalized”. Society also judges their gender identity. Some intersex people may be very comfortable with their sense of their own gender, but medical experts may try to force physical changes on them against their will. Others may be transgender but find themselves denied treatment for their transgenderism, or receive a poor standard of care. And as I said, the medical establishment has tended to insist on separating the physical and the psychological, to the detriment of many intersex and/or gender variant people.
You will notice that I haven’t yet talked very much about the film itself. I have two good reasons for that. The first is that it’s important to explain the context, to give you a wider understanding. The second, perhaps more important reason, is that I want you to experience the film without bringing too many preconceptions to your viewing, so that you get the full impact. I think this is a wonderful film – probably the first to look at this subject properly.
If you want to know more, this brief introduction is available as a handout, and I’ve included some web links, including to a transgender conference which is taking place at UEA in September.
Thank you for coming, and enjoy the film.