A little over a year ago I was reading A.E Brain’s blog when there was mention of a documentary called Intersexion. Directed by Grant Lahood and narrated by Mani Mitchell – an intersex New Zealander – it’s about the personal stories of intersex individuals from all over the world. I knew comparatively little about what intersex was at the time, but given my distaste for culturally entrenched gender binary, I definitely wanted to learn more.
I watched the entire documentary that day, at my computer, and I cried.
So when I found out a few weeks ago that there was going to be a free Intersex workshop, co-hosted by Mani Mitchell and by Julie Watson from the Human Rights Commission, and run by Rainbow Youth – I definitely wanted to be there!
Despite being horrendously short on sleep (and I wasn’t the only one), it was a brilliant day. There were about 25 of us there, and we ranged in age from under 10 to over 80. Genders definitely came from all over the galaxy, and we certainly weren’t all white, middle-class and cis. We weren’t even all from New Zealand! There were disabilities, social awkwardnesses, and outright shynesses all treated gently. Lunch also took into account vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free requirements, which was appreciated by a goodly number of us as well.
(Incidentally, I offered to pay something for lunch – and was promptly taken up on it in the form of washing dishes! Thank you, HRC, for the very pleasant spread. There’s something very nice about being able to put your own sandwiches together, drink copious amounts of tea, and then do something to help clean up after.)
Everyone who did show up was genuinely interested in learning something. A few of us knew a little – two of us had seen the documentary before – some knew a fair amount, and some came with minds open ready to soak it all up. But it wasn’t just straight into the documentary and then the Q&A session. Instead we got to know each other a little. But not in a terrifying way (which is good – I may come across fairly extroverted, but it tires me the hell out). There we were all sitting in a loose circle, and there were six hats in the middle: a black bowler, a pink cowboy, a golden tiara, a grey woolen beanie, a silver ferns cap, and a pink-with-bells-on jesters hat. And, in introducing ourselves, the hats were a good way of describing the ones were wore in our lives. Although we didn’t have to put them on!
How people chose to utilise those hats was fascinating. Not just the hats they chose – which was often surprising enough – but the reasons behind them, the stories. And some people chose two or three. One deliberately went through all of them. One wanted to put the tiara on the cowboy hat. And I didn’t choose any one of those hats at all, but went for a big sunhat to stop me from burning, and was large enough for me to stick all my self-chosen labels on. And in telling those stories, and hearing those that were told, we all learned much more than we would have from ‘Hi, I’m Name and I come from Suburb and I’m training to be a Professional Whatsit.’
So when that was done, it was time for the documentary right? Nope! Not yet. It was time for roleplaying. *everybody runs away in terror* Actually, I can totally see why this was done first – and Julie did a great job of putting the particularly nervous ones at ease. We split ourselves into six groups, so there were 4-5 people in each group. Between us we chose one person to be ‘mum’ and one to be ‘dad’ (I wanted to be dad! So they happily let me. And Key was a great spouse for the 10 minutes were were in character), and we were given a blanket that we had to figure out how to fold into a baby-type shape. The other people in the group were our support network, with as little or as much interaction and/or role-playing as they felt comfortable with. Ours decided to be grandparents. Once we’d figured that all out, they gave us our year. We were parents in 1973 – only 5 years before I was actually born.
Starting in 1963, and with Mani and Julie taking turns and being the midwife, each set of parents was informed that their child had ‘indeterminate gender’; ‘was a hermaphrodite’; ‘wasn’t a boy or a girl’; ‘was intersex, but surgery can easily fix it these days’. (I found out later that 1963 was the year that Mani was born.) The years were 1963, 1973, 1983, 1992, 2012, and – excitingly – 2032. And being those parents, and watching those little roleplays, was heart-breaking. The dismissiveness of the midwives – as much from their lack of knowledge and understanding as anything else; the confusion of the parents and support network; the trust that ‘the doctors’ knew the right thing to do… it was all hard to be part of, even for just a few minutes with a blanket baby. 2032 was fantastic though, with a robot Mani congratulating the parents on their intersex child, and all the opportunities that were open to their future. We all clapped and cheered.
Then it was time for the documentary. And it was even better, seeing it with other people. I didn’t cry this time – but others did. If you get the chance, PLEASE watch it.
The question and answer time afterwards was necessary, I think. So many of us had so much to process, and being able to have Mani there to answer our questions was incredibly helpful. We also learned, dishearteningly, that there’s been a backwards step in the medical community, and that instead of using the term ‘intersex’ for children born with ambiguous genitalia (the term can also apply chromosomally, but that’s not something that’s noticed at birth, generally) they are now using DSD, or Disorders of Sex Development. None of us liked the use of the term ‘disorder’ at all.
I can’t think of everything to write down! But I learned so much – not least that there is a considerable overlap in discrimination against intersex and trans* people. That you can identify as both male and female or as neither (not to mention identifying many other ways). That doctor’s definitely do not know everything! And that making choices for a child, and hiding those choices from them, will not cause them to grow up happy and healthy.
I also learned that there are even more amazing people in Auckland than I knew – I met a few of them on Saturday. I admired more than one pair of shoes, haircut, personal style, and in one case, sparkly toenail polish – and had my own Sex Geek t-shirt complimented quite a few times as well.
And I met one of my internet crushes!