Filmmaker Traces Evolution of ‘Intersex’

To amplify the voices of people with intersex conditions and to shed light on the medicalization of intersex identities, The Women’s Center handed the microphone at an event Friday to documentary filmmaker Robin Honan and intersex historian Elizabeth Reis to vocalize the crossroads of medical and social thought on intersex bodies.

The event, called “Recording Intersex,” focused on the language used to discuss intersex individuals and examined how the term intersex has evolved. Honan introduced the term as a congenital condition in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that is “atypical,” or does not conform with common definitions of female or male.

“I want you to think a lot about language. Chromosomes. Sophomore year of high school. XX and XY. The binary and its limitations,” Honan said. “What do we do when we find ourselves outside of it? Here we are in 2011 looking for language to talk about this.”

Both Honan and Reis also discussed the term DSD, or disorder of sex development, a contested word that they said is commonly used to define intersex conditions. They noted a recent shift toward substituting “disorder” with “difference” or “divergence to avoid implying a necessary medical fix.

“Often, people sought to surgically alter the bodies of those with intersex conditions instead of changing how we talk about it” said Miriam Muscarella ’12, an organizer of the event. “Today, instead of surgically altering intersex bodies, many people are pushing for more objective, clear, and non-pejorative terminologies to refine how people with intersex conditions are medically treated and commonly understood.”

Following the event’s theme of recording, Reis also noted the lack of data recorded on intersex individuals.

“Little has been preserved in medical libraries,” said Reis, author of “Bodies in Doubt” and a professor at the University of Oregon. “I’d see ‘An extraordinary find! A hermaphrodite,’ and that was the best use of language. Other ways of describing intersex individuals were impostor, deceiver, hybrid, and unfortunate monstrosity—all derogatory ways people with intersex conditions were discussed.”

Honan shared a clip from her recent documentary project entitled “Ain’t I a Woman”—slated for release as a feature-length film in 2013—which explores facets of intersex identity through the lens of the lives and experiences of individuals with intersex conditions.

“I’m just being exposed to the wide spectrum of intersex conditions and the various controversies over the types of procedures necessary for people with those conditions,” said Bradley L. Craig ’13, an intern at the Women’s Center.

Eva M. Gillis-Buck ’12, a human developmental and regenerative biology concentrator pursuing a joint concentration in Women, Gender and Sexuality, said she wished Honan’s video was presented to undergraduate medical school aspirants.

As a student of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology 10: “Human Development and Regenerative Biology,” she recalled a lecture on sex development and differentiation which presented intersex conditions. The lecture, she said, did not fully address the social and cultural implications of people with intersex conditions.

“This was revealing of how much society values sex as cut and dry. Male and female are seen as biological truths. Intersex individuals show this to be false, and I wished we would’ve addressed sensitivity to patients,” Gillis-Buck said.

“This may be the only lecture pre-med students will receive on sex development, and it would be a shame for them to walk away without a more human aspect,” she added.

At the event, debates over social surgery versus medical surgery were also raised in conjunction with questions regarding the ethics of surgical alterations.

To this end, Honan said she endeavors to use film as a conduit to create a world more friendly to intersex conditions.

“What animates me is the evolution of human consciousness on the macro level. In this issue, you can see positive change and the climb out of the binary, opening up to what is a freer and more expressed world,” Honan said. “Our strength is in our diversity, in biology and culture. We are trying to create a world in which people can be their fullest selves; in which it doesn’t matter if people’s bodies are different.”

—Staff writer Nadia L. Farjood can be reached at nadiafarjood@college.harvard.edu

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