'Intersex isn't uncommon, it's just unheard of,' says one of the 20 interviewees in Intersexion, a new documentary about people who aren't male or female that is showing this month at Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival and next month at Melbourne Queer Film Festival.
The range of conditions that result in doctors not being able to decisively answer the question: 'is it a boy or a girl?' occur in one in 2,000 births. This statistic makes intersex more common than cerebral palsy.
It was this fact that first attracted New Zealand filmmaker Grant Lahood to the subject. 'When I heard it was one in 2,000 I was amazed,' he tells Gay Star News in an interview over Skype from Auckland. 'If you'd asked me before I would have thought it was one in millions. And then I asked myself why I didn't know any intersex people? Why they are so invisible?'
Mani Mitchell is the most visible intersex person in New Zealand. She didn't find out that she was a boy called Bruce for the first years of her life until she was an adult. When she found out she decided to come out as intersex, changing her name from Margaret to Mani Bruce Mitchell and growing a wispy beard that contrasts with her soft voice.
'I'm not male or female,' Mitchell says in Intersexion. 'I'm intersex.' She narrates the documentary but Lahood was reluctant to focus solely on Mitchell's story. He wanted to get as many intersex people to speak about their lives on film as possible to show how common intersexuality is. That was easier said than done however. Luckily Mitchell is well-known internationally. 'The fact that Mani contacted people, almost everybody immediately said yes,' says Lahood.
The stories in Intersexion are so moving because it becomes clear that it's not being born with ambiguous genitals that has led to the pain in the interviewees' lives, but the fact that they've been taught by parents and doctors to believe there is something shamefully wrong with them.
Even people who were never told what was different about them by their parents sensed that something was being kept from them. For example one interviewee says he was told by his mother that he couldn't play with a girl's toy because 'we're supposed to raise you as a boy' not because 'you are a boy'.
'The message filters in whether the parents want it too or not,' says Lahood. 'I think for everybody growing up in that culture of secrecy has had significant emotional affects. People spoke about attempting suicide and becoming subject to sexual abuse.'
Sexual abuse is a sadly common theme in intersex childhoods. 'As Mani puts it in the documentary,' says Lahood 'intersex children make good victims because they are used to keeping secrets. Sexual predators pick-up on that.'
The children also learn to disassociate with their body after frequent Invasive examinations from doctors. Most of the people in the documentary also had surgery on their genitals when they were children which they bitterly resented.
'They decided to remove my clitoris because it was too big for a "normal girl",' says one interviewee, adding the quotation marks with fingers. 'I love being intersex I just wish they didn't fuck with my body so much.'
'They [the doctors] harmed me in ways that prevent me from being romantically or sexually intimate with people,' says another.
The couple of intersex people in the documentary who did not have surgery are very happy about it. 'It's the best present my parents ever gave me,' says Hida Viloria.
'Nobody that we spoke to agrees to childhood genital surgery unless its a matter of life of death,' says Lahood. 'Everybody thinks people should be in the position to make an informed choice themselves about what they want for their bodies. There are situations where some surgery is necessary, where there are complication with passing urine. But in the majority of cases it's appearance medicine.'
The bodily invasions that intersex children frequently suffer often leads to a complicated relationship to their sexuality when they are adults.
'It's difficult for a lot of intersex people to get involved with anyone,' says Lahood. 'It takes a an incredible amount of courage to reveal that part of yourself to anybody and know that it's going to be ok.'
In the film one of the interviewees, Lynnell Stephanie Long, says: 'I've come out so many times. I've come out as a transexual, I've come out as a gay guy, I've come out as a straight woman and I've come out as a lesbian.'
Intersexion features opposite-sex attracted and same-sex attracted people. Although the concept of opposite and same is complicated for intersex people.
'I think that one thing I've realized from making this film is that there's no neat line,' says Lahood. 'There's a spectrum and a continuum. It's not neat and tidy: that's male and that's female; that's gay and that's straight. It made me realize that the world is not as clear cut as you think it is.'
Watch the trailer for Intersexion here: