Orchids sheds light on the secrecy surrounding intersex

Orchids records Phoebe Hart’s journey to come to terms with her intersex condition. ABC TV

The documentary, Orchids: my intersex adventure, aims to reduce the secrecy and shame in which intersex people have been forced to spend their lives. It relates the story of filmmaker, Phoebe Hart, who, along with her sister, Bonnie, has a genetic condition now referred to as AIS, or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which is a form of intersexuality. Previously, those with this condition were referred to as hermaphrodites.

The Hart sisters have male chromosomes and both had their undeveloped testes surgically removed at puberty. They appeared to be female at birth as a result of the male foetus not being susceptible to the hormone that would have caused masculinisation. So they were raised as girls.

Phoebe describes the confusion and distress she experienced as a result of learning that she had male biology, that she had no uterus and would not menstruate or develop as her girlfriends did, and that she wouldn’t be able to bear children.

The film seeks to raise public awareness of intersexuality so that those who are intersex don’t have to hide their condition. It tries to ensure that intersex people can get the support of others in similar circumstances, and that they and their families don’t have to feel ashamed of what are reasonably common chromosomal variations.

Who decides which gender?

But its political implications go way beyond this. The medical profession, which reflects and enforces the rules of a patriarchal society, has historically considered that infants should be placed in one of two sex categories, and brought up to be either a girl or a boy.

In recent decades, intersex activists have campaigned against altering the bodies of children to fit into one of two sex categories. Until recently, for example, it was routine to surgically alter penises that were considered inadequate on babies with male biology, to make them into clitorises and slot them into the category of female. These surgeries were harmful and often removed the capacity for sexual sensation.

Activists argue that surgical or hormonal treatment of children to make them resemble a particular biological sex is against their human rights and should not be attempted. Intersex persons, in their view, should be able to choose for or against such treatment as adults.

Doctors may well argue that they’ve been acting in the interests of the children and their parents, because children will suffer socially if not clearly of one sex or another. And the dilemma for parents is considerable.

Patriarchal societies require clearly delineated sex categories so that the system of power that relegates girls to subordination and boys to domination can be effectively sustained. In order to regulate the system, girls and boys must be easily distinguished in public life. They are required to behave according to different stereotypes of behaviour, which are then attributed to their sex. These stereotypes are called “gender” and require boys to play football and girls to play with dolls.

Girls in western culture are expected to reflect their “gender” of femininity in the display of large areas of their bodies and to wear pastel colours. In some cultures they are required to cover their bodies and even faces. Boys aren’t so restricted and receive considerable privileges from their superior status. Such privileges are exemplified in the blokiness of the boardroom, which would be impossible to maintain if it was not clear who was a bloke.

The second wave of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s sought to break down this imperative, and to promote gender-neutral play for children and gender-neutral education. The progress made at that time has been substantially rolled back, as is clear to anyone who has been to the beach this summer.

The girl children are overwhelmingly in pink while boys can wear a variety of strong colours. Intersexual children display the gendered characteristics that they’ve been taught are appropriate to the sex category they were brought up in. If the exigencies of gender were lessened, rather than being sharpened as they are at present, then there’s more chance that intersex children wouldn’t have to be politically assigned to a sex class.

Intersex and transgender

Children and adults with an intersex condition are very different from what are commonly called “transgenders”. There is nothing unusual about the chromosomes of persons who are transgendered, though sometimes transgender activists deliberately describe themselves as intersex. They may wish to suggest that their condition is biological rather than about the pursuit of bodily changes to fit more closely with their ideas about the “gender” they want to represent.

The demands by intersex activists that children should not be forced by the administration of surgery or hormones to fit into a sex category, is diametrically at odds with the developing practice in western medicine of transgendering children diagnosed with gender dysphoria through the administration of puberty blockers as early as 10 years old.

The concept and practice of transgenderism is founded in a profound belief in innate gender difference, a belief that the experience of intersex persons often contradicts.

It’s well worth viewing this documentary. I hope that it will achieve its aim of bringing the issue of intersexuality to public attention and create debate on the host of questions that it raises, particularly about how the medical profession and parents can best relate to children with the condition.

Orchids will be aired on ABC1 on Sunday January 29 at 10 pm.