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Back You are here: Home Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity SGD Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity archived ISGD My intersex adventure: Interview with Phoebe Hart

My intersex adventure: Interview with Phoebe Hart

Phoebe_carDocumentary film-maker Phoebe Hart lifts the lid on a long-held family secret in Orchids: My Intersex Adventure. Six years in the making, the film is a powerful and accessible insight into people born with genetic, hormonal or physical features that may be considered both male and female. The self-described ‘hermaphrodite’ spoke with Katrina Fox.

13 February 2011

As a child Phoebe Hart was a happy go-lucky girl – until puberty hit and she was told that, unlike her other female friends, she would never get a period and would not be able to bear children.

The reasons were kept hidden from her until she was 17 and her family explained that she had Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). This means she is a woman with 46XY (male) chromosomes. Undergoing an orchidectomy (an operation to remove her undescended testes) as a teenager left not only physical but emotional scars on Hart.

Like many intersex people, Hart was urged to keep her situation secret. No one in the family talked about it, leaving her feeling ashamed, isolated and confused. Six years ago she decided to pick up a camera and make a largely autobiographical film to allow her to reflect on the shame and trauma of her coming-of-age experience and examine why ‘coming out’ as intersex continues to be extremely challenging.

Phoebe_TonyBrisbane-based Hart and her sister Bonnie travel across Australia meeting with other intersex people, as well as turning the camera on each other and their parents. Although initially resistant to appearing in the film, Hart’s mother later reluctantly agrees to talk.

“I think it took a long time for mum to feel comfortable about being in the film, and even when she agreed to help me out, she was quite nervous,” says Hart. “I think she has felt a lot of guilt about the way things worked out, although she was acting on the advice of doctors.

“After the premiere at Brisbane International Film Festival, which my family attended, I could see mum's attitude had changed. Just being part of an audience that was so supportive of our story on screen was helpful for her. Also, she was mobbed by young people with intersex that had also attended the premiere. They all said they wished that their parents were as open and supportive of them as my mum was of me!”

The two sisters used a variety of cameras, ranging from semi-professional to domestic VHS camcorders and Super8 to make the ‘guerrilla documentary’, which is intercut with family home movies and photographs. One of its strengths is the participants’ willingness to allow video footage of their emotional tensions and struggles to be included.

For example, Hart and her husband James want to start a family but dealing with Hart’s infertility and the stress of the adoption process puts pressure on their marriage.

“I think the process was toughest on James because he and I were dealing with this massive loss of not having our own biological children and all the time I was filming how this struggle was going down,” says Hart.

Yet ultimately the film has improved her relationships with her family, including James.

“There's no longer any embarrassment or secrecy to talk about intersex or anything that might be considered intimate. We're more open and honest with one another,” says Hart.

“When we started the adoption process we decided that we should be open about our backgrounds and make our past experiences advantages rather than disadvantages. I mean, my condition was kept a secret and was only ever discussed in hushed, shameful voices. It's pretty similar to what many adoptees have experienced in previous generations, so we let our case workers known that after experiencing the pain of this secrecy we were committed to openness with our future child.”

Phoebe_outsideSadly generations of intersex people have had non-consensual surgeries carried out on them as babies or children. In many cases this is done simply to force the child into the appearance of either a male or female – conforming to rigid sex binaries rather than embracing diversity.

Activists such as Hart, who is a member of the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group of Australia, are committed to creating change and removing the stigma attached to intersex variations.

“We are focused on getting people with AIS or any intersex condition together for peer support and understanding. We also lobby for change in governance, law and medicine,” says Hart.

“I think I was lucky in many respects. At least I had the facts before I went in for surgery, although the doctors advised my parents to hold back telling me the truth until I was 17 and I found the experience of going for surgery to remove my testes quite stigmatising overall. I felt like a freak, a medical curiosity.

“I know of many people with intersex who only sort out what happened to them as infants many decades on when they request their medical records. They may have been forced to grow up in a medically assigned gender that they always felt was wrong, and that can have lasting effects. I feel that it's the kind of thing that should only ever be done with informed consent or if it's life threatening. Cosmetic surgery on infants is not acceptable.”

The term ‘hermaphrodite’ may be more familiar to the general public, although many intersex activists reject its use as inaccurate. Yet Hart describes herself in the film and on its promotional poster as a hermaphrodite.

“I have reclaimed the use of the word ‘hermaphrodite’ in Orchids because, even though scientifically speaking it doesn't apply to the range of intersex conditions humans can have, I feel it is a nice old word that is part of our history and it's better than newer terms such as ‘disorder of sexual development’ which I feel are pathologising,” she explains.

Hart – who has worked extensively as a writer, producer and director of factual TV and media including projects with Network Ten and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – hopes Orchids will “engage and move audiences” and encourage intersex people to come out of the shadows.

“I made this film for other intersex people to show that they are not alone. It's a gift I hope will help with healing and happiness in their lives.”

Orchids: My Intersex Adventure screens 23 February as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Film Festival.

For more information on the film, including upcoming international screenings, visit the Orchids website.

For more information on intersex and to connect with intersex people and activists, visit the Organisation Intersex International (OII) website for links to local organisations.

 

 

Comments   

0 #3 Rebecca 2012-06-10 12:34
I just watched this fascinating show, but one thing remains unanswered. At the end of the show, we are shown a beautiful baby girl that Ms. Hart says is their newly adopted child. On Wikipedia, last updated May 19, 2012, there is no mention of a baby. Merely states that Ms. Hart lives with her cat and husband, James. Was the baby added to create a happy ending or does she truly exist? I hope she does.
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0 #2 sally lester 2012-01-29 16:40
i watched your show last night on the abc jan 29th and thought why hasnt someone bought this to the attention of ORDINARY PEOPLE like myself this was compelling viewing and showed a side that not a lot of people know about including myself. good on you for bringing the uneducated people like myself aware of this condition at one stage i really hated your mum and dad but on reflection with no understanding i guess they could be forgiven KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK and the end to show your darling daughter bought tears to my eyes GOOD LUCK FOR YOUR FUTURE whatever you chose to do regards sally lester
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0 #1 Gail 2012-01-29 09:33
Phoebe and Bonnie, and your gorgeous family. Best ever doc. I stayed up way past bedtime and it was worth it. Just a family story, so brave you girls and mum n dad - aawwww. the filmwork was exquisite. Just amazing, best show I've seen in years. Can't wait to see your next show.
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