Intersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis made the documentary film A Normal Girl with director Aubree Bernier-Clarke. They talk about bodily autonomy, informed consent, and why families with intersex children need support networks.
In the film, you spoke about not knowing what your own surgery, which you had as a child, would entail. Does that still happen?
Pidgeon: There are parents of infants who are still going through this today, and who reach out to me. I know parents with children of two, six and eight years old who are working with doctors who recommend the same surgery that I had in the 1980s.
There is more recognition of the issues, and legislation in some countries to make the kind of surgery I had illegal. The European Union adopted a landmark resolution on the protection of intersex people on 14 February this year.
With such a complex topic, how did you decide what information to include and what not to include in A Normal Girl?
Aubree: We had cuts of this film that were over 20 minutes, and cuts that were about eight minutes. Early on, I was advised that a film of less than ten minutes would be more programmable. But we showed the ten-minute version of the film to a test audience who know very little about the topic, and they didn't understand what intersex was when they walked away.
Then we made the densest version possible, which was a 20-minute cut, and we scaled back from that. We tried to come up with a cut that was clear and concise, but also informative. It's a topic that people know very little about.
The film gives the impression that there is very little communication between parents of intersex children and the medical community.
Aubree: Things were less clear in the 1980s, when Pidgeon had their surgery. You couldn't go home and Google something. I don't think doctors used the word 'intersex' to describe Pidgeon to their parents when they were young.
Pidgeon: That's right, they used euphemisms such as 'swollen labia', and 'gonadal tissue' instead of testes. They would say that my gonadal tissue was pre- or under-developed ovarian tissue, and that, if left alone, it would become cancerous. In my medical records in the 1980s, they labelled me as having 'testicular feminisation', but I don't think they used those words with my parents.
They presented me as an underdeveloped female, who needed their help to become a completely developed female child.
This is also a family story. What was it like to work with your mother on the film?
Pidgeon: My mother and I had recently begun going to therapy together, and we went to a session before filming that day. We had an argument, and I thought that I wouldn't be able to film that day.
But then I saw that my mother had hand-written her answers to the questions we had sent her in a spiral notebook. If I hadn't seen the notebook, I might not have filmed that day, but I saw how much thought she had put into it.
It's a difficult subject for her, and a decision that she regrets.
My parents didn't have the internet back then, and they believed that doctors had my best interests in mind. But still, it's difficult for me to know that they could have stopped my surgery, and didn't.
My mom has no media training, and she had never been on camera or given an interview before we filmed A Normal Girl. But she is such a strong part of the film. She appears vulnerable and genuine, and I think parents can connect with her.
Her role could change many parents' ideas of what it means to be intersex.
Aubree: It was such a gift that Pigeon's mom chose to be open with us. She owned the decision that she made regarding Pidgeon's surgery, and I think her regret has made a big impact on her life. I think that she wants nothing more than for other parents to learn from this.
How do you set up a scene that is going to be sensitive?
Aubree: We tried to make Laurie, Pidgeon's mom, as comfortable as possible. We filmed in her home, and we didn't have a lot of monitors or people in the room. We also spent time chatting and getting to know each other.
Pidgeon: Documentary films are a way for me to talk to my family. I made a zero-budget film as a graduate student, and it gave me a reason to call my parents and ask them questions. A Normal Girl allowed me and my mom to connect.
If parents have support from other intersex families, it's easier to just raise a child with love and support. It gives parents room to make decisions about how they present medical and social choices to their intersex children.
My parents were isolated from other families with intersex children. They did what my doctors said, and I was castrated, forced to undergo medically unnecessary surgery, and take feminising hormones.
Fortunately, most of the intersex families I know are connected to one another through support groups and online. They seem to have close, open relationships with their children, and can talk about their intersex diagnosis, as well as their sexuality and physical development.
What intersex representation had you seen in the arts and media before making this film?
Aubree: The novel Middlesex is a well-known intersex story, though I don't think it's a great representation. I think I had seen an intersex person on a talk show in the 1990s. So, not a lot.
Then I met Pidgeon and became aware of their work.
Pidgeon: I've seen an effort over the last ten years to have more intersex representation in film and television, but that is limited to documentaries with small audiences. I often see the negative side to our lives, which is important when a movement is in its infancy.
Growing up, before I knew that I was intersex, I would hear the word 'hermaphrodite' in school and on television. I didn't know what that was, but I knew that it was something to laugh at or be ashamed of. It's damaging, to be a joke to people.
Why do you think there has been such a lack of information about intersex?
Aubree: There's a lot of shame and secrecy. People are put on hormones from a young age, and a lot of people who are intersex don't find out until they're adults. Pidgeon has a similar story. This problem hasn't stopped. Doctors still perform unnecessary surgery, and people don't always question the system.
Pidgeon: I think a lot of people know about intersex, but don't know the language. People might know that there was a relative who had something done to them in secrecy, but don't have a word for it.
You've mentioned language. What do you think it does for a person to have a word to define themselves?
Pidgeon: I think it's powerful, and it can be a double-edged sword, especially when the word is stigmatised.
But I think it's our duty to reclaim words. If my choice is between a word that's stigmatised, and no word, I choose the stigmatised word. Then I try to de-stigmatise that word, so that people can be proud of that identity.
When you're a fish with no school, it's scary. But when you find that word to identify, you find your school.
I am intersex. I am not binary in my biology or my gender.
It took me a while to be open about being intersex, so I understand that people sometimes don't want to identify with the word. Coming out of the shadows means, for some people, bullying, harassment and a loss of their families and support systems.
What needs to change, for people to be able to, as you say in the film, take their intersex children home and love them?
Pidgeon: We need people on both sides of the argument for intersex surgery to have real, difficult conversations.
We also need governments and bodies like the United Nations to reinforce existing laws regarding female genital mutilation and informed consent.
And, we need to recognise that intersex people are humans. These laws apply to us as they apply to everyone else.
Many people form their opinions based on what the people they trust think, and many people can understand that intersex people deserve to have bodily autonomy. So, we also need to have conversations with each other, after we see films like A Normal Girl.
#FiveFilms4Freedom, the world’s widest-reaching LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) digital short-film programme returns from 21 to 31 March 2019.