Review: Stories of Intersex and Faith (film)

I’m honored that the producers invited me to screen Stories of Intersex and Faith, but I’ve been struggling to put appropriate words to what I feel about this important film. The contrast that I am struggling with is that it is both accessible and deep, simple and insightful. So, I am going to break my review down into two parts in order to try to do justice to both aspects without trivializing the other.

Simple and Accessible

Stories of Intersex and Faith takes a complex set of  issues and makes them very accessible. The film is very much about stories, but they are stories that are organized and presented to bring understanding that is deep and wide. The stories reflect intersex people of various ages and diagnoses, as well as parents, spouses, pastors, medical doctors, and mental health providers. The emphasis is on the experiences of intersex folk (and their families) as they have been engaged by medical professionals (physical and mental health) as well as churches, synagogues, and religious community.

Many of the folk interviewed validate the confusion, fear, stigma, isolation, shame, and struggle that can come when folk discover they or a loved one has an intersex variation. However, even in navigating such painful topics, there is nothing strident about this film. In one segment, a therapist discusses the “anger and fury” that are such a pervasive reaction by intersex people (in response to their medical interventions) without judgment, but with a recognition that such feelings can impact the quality of life for the one experiencing them. The film models conversations that are empathetic to all involved, even the medical providers who have caused harm.

I want to call the film “simple,” because the emphasis is so profoundly on the humanity of all involved. As with so many sensitive and complicated topics, we need to be able to see through the arguments and “issues” and policies and statistics and all of that complexity to see the humanity of the people who are most impacted. Yet, there is nothing “simple” about providing a presentation that so skillfully inspires us to be in deeper and more compassionate community with one another around such a potentially volatile topic.

Deep and Insightful

While I am not intersex and do not claim to be a expert, I am a pretty well-educated person in regards to gender who has actively followed intersex education for more than a decade. I have seen and heard much more explicit sharing about intersex experiences in the past. However, I am haunted in new ways by the descriptions of trauma (the descriptions of how procedures and “treatment” have impacted folk with intersex variations) that were highlighted in this film. There is a way that Stories of Intersex and Faith gets to the heart of the matter without getting bogged down in too many details. Despite my history with the topic, I came away grateful for a new depth of understanding.

While some descriptions of medical conditions and procedures are offered, I would think that this would nearly be G-rated film. Proper names for genitalia are included, so one would want to use their best judgment about whether an audience is prepared for that. But there is neither blood nor graphic disclosure beyond the essentials of verbally describing a diagnosis such as hypospadias or androgen insensitivity syndrome. The emphasis is really on these beautiful human beings and how they have experienced the world.

In addition, I believe that this is the first really accessible resource that I have seen to address the spiritual side of intersex experience. While many of the interview subjects are Christian, there is a meaningful foray into Judaism to acknowledge that struggle is not limited to Christian community and that intersex experience is represented matter-of-factly in ancient Jewish texts. Most of the theological consideration is cultural (“She is not a mistake.”), and the only texts cited are Hebrew scripture/Old Testament and Talmud (Jewish). So this is not a deep dive into theological considerations, but it is an important bridge for anyone who might have theological concerns.

I would recommend this film for every clergy person, social worker, hospital chaplain, therapist, or peer counselor as a really critical introduction to providing competent care for people and families with intersex variations. Of course, it would be especially important for medical providers to witness these stories as well. It is a beautifully done, insightful, and important resource for community care of every kind.

For Conservative Audiences

Same-gender-loving, transgender, and non-binary experience has been in the cross-hairs of the culture wars for several decades now. Stories of Intersex and Faith acknowledges that it can be hard for people of faith to talk about sex (in any way shape or form), but that it is important that we do so. It mostly sidesteps the connections to other kinds of gender variance that are not rooted in medical diagnosis and physical symptoms. It is agnostic about how intersex people fit into debates about “homosexuality,” transgender, and non-binary experience, making it an interesting entry point for audiences that may have already been shaped by polarizing arguments from the “left” and/or from the “right” over the last three or more decades.

For Trans and Non-Binary and Queer and Allied Audiences

As I said above, Stories of Intersex and Faith is agnostic about transgender, non-binary, and same-gender-loving experience. I was nervous about how this might play out over the course of a feature length film, but I was really quite comfortable with the way that it was handled.

There is an early acknowledgment that it can be hard for intersex people to navigate all of the dynamics around homosexuality and transgender and “what God wants.” There is a later example of how homophobia can get in the way of intersex people finding supportive resources, including within their families. There is also acknowledgment that intersex surgeries tend to be about forcing intersex people into the “male” or “female” box for cultural not medical reasons.

In fact, various kinds of transitions are described as a part of intersex folk finding their way, particularly those who learned their diagnosis later in life. However, the conversation does not gravitate towards standard transgender shorthand (like calling it a “gender transition”). Instead, specific actions and experiences are described for what they are, such as starting or stopping certain hormones, starting or stopping depressive symptoms (or other health challenges), etc. The post-script notes that one of the interview subjects had their birth certificate changed to “intersex” in Colorado.

Note: Some intersex people also identify as transgender and/or non-binary, but many do not. Some do not even identify as “intersex.” They may identify as a man or a woman with an intersex variation.

More importantly, I think viewing and showing this film is an important way that we can show solidarity to our intersex siblings. Insofar as transgender and same-gender-loving issues are being discussed in faith communities, it is a simple show of solidarity for us to share this resource with our communities–a film that centers the needs of intersex people and does not use them as a prop.

Imagine if the next time a doctor explains to a parent about their newborn intersex child and the parents could respond, “Oh, I saw a movie about this at church! I know that I am not alone and that we have options.” We can make that happen by bringing this film into our faith communities.

For Audiences of Color

There are a few subjects in Stories of Intersex and Faith who do not appear to be white or who do not sound like they have English as a first language, but there are not many. I would love to see a follow-up film that shows more families (church/faith and biological) steeped in Black church, Hispanic, Asian, and Muslim traditions. Despite those issues of representation, I believe that this film touches on themes that would resonate in communities of color–specifically around the importance of family, faith, and a medical community that does not always respond appropriately. I do not think that Muslim communities would find any problematic theological references. Those from beyond the Abrahamic traditions (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) may or may not resonate with the God language, depending on your particular background.

For Intersex Audiences

Because I am not intersex, I do not want to vouch for Stories of Intersex and Faith in regards to how it will land for intersex folk. I would note that the film is billed as having five intersex stories. Yet, when we count the doctors and therapists and other resource people who are interviewed, there are definitely more than five intersex people in this film. At least two professionals speak to their own experience as intersex people in some detail, even though they are offered primarily as resource people, not primary subjects within the structure of the film. I certainly appreciate the way that this strategy breaks down the non-intersex doctors/professionals vs intersex patients paradigm, by modeling intersex people as knowledgeable professionals who can speak to their own experience, as well as those they have served.

More about Intersex and Faith

More from OtherWise Christian

  • Intersex in OtherWise Christian 2: Stories of Liberation (blog post coming soon!)
  • Intersex in OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation (blog post coming soon!)

Compiled by Mx Chris Paige on January 21, 2020.

Note: This blog is intended to be an on-going work in progress. Please contact us if you have additions, corrections, or concerns.

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