Over the past decade, expecting parents across the United States have created a new practice of gender-reveal parties: held during pregnancy, the couple stages an elaborate — sometimes dangerous — display in which their unborn child’s sex is announced through the surprise “reveal” of a pink (girl) or blue (boy) effect.
Jenna Karvunidis, the mother who started the craze in 2008 with a simple cake, came to recognize the inherent conflict of equating genitalia with identity. “Who cares what gender the baby is?” she wrote on Facebook in 2019. “I did it at the time because we didn’t live in 2019 and didn’t know what we know now – that assigning focus on gender at birth leaves out so much of their potential and talents that have nothing to do with what’s between its legs.”
The perfect plot twist, Karvunidis revealed in her post, was that “the world’s first gender-reveal party baby is a girl who wears suits!” Recognizing that the practice she unintentionally introduced is offensive, if not outright harmful, to nonbinary and transgender people, Karvunidis told ELLE: “That’s the thing with oppression; only those affected feel it.”
Nature Abhors a Binary
Although they account for less than 2% of the global population, intersex people are among those who are most affected by binary gender essentialism — and all too often erased from the conversation. Formerly known as “hermaphrodites” — a term now recognized as derogatory and erroneous — intersex people are those whose bodies “do not fit the typical definitions of male and female,” according to the Office of United Nations High Commissioners for Human Rights.
Born with variations in sex characteristics of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, or genitals, intersex people defy the reductive sex assignment given at birth — which all too frequently results in stigmatization and discrimination. Doctors often push parents to reconcile their child’s sex immediately through surgery to make them more “acceptable,” or through hormonal treatments at a later age, despite the lack of evidence in favor of these procedures. Families may practice infanticide, abandonment, or non-consensual medical interventions — all human rights abuses.
Largely misunderstood by both science and society, which forced them to claim one gender rather than allowing them to be as nature created them, intersex people have been relegated to the shadows to survive. It is only in recent years with an increasing focus on gender-nonconforming identity in art, media, and popular culture that space has emerged for intersex people to claim their rightful space in the world.
Set Me Free
In the ongoing project and short documentary film, My Own Wings, Carla Moral and Katia Repina have spoken with 35 intersex people from Spain, the U.S., Ukraine, Russia, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Panama about their experiences and the issues they face in their respective cultures.
“Carla Moral and I both wanted to do a project about gender because growing up we both felt like it was too narrow and we were very confused about how to be ‘a woman’,” Katia Repina remembers. After seeing a program on TV, Moral suggested they investigate; Repina knew it was a long shot to find intersex people, let alone photograph them, but they realized it was a project they had to pursue.
Over time, they slowly built a network established on trust, mutuality, and respect. By offering the option to appear anonymously, Repina and Moral were able to photograph those who wanted to participate but were uncomfortable revealing themselves. Although they did not ask any anatomical questions, sometimes people offered to share their experiences with doctors and procedures, and the impact this had on their lives and sense of self.
Hana, an intersex person living in Mexico City, says, “To be sincere, for sure I would have chosen the surgery. But had I done the surgery I would have developed a very different relationship with myself and with my body. The important difference here is the right to choose. There would have been information to make decisions from and transparency. There would not be this secrecy, this fear I have experienced for so many years. The circumstances that surrounded all of these medical procedures ended up being very destructive. It made me not trust in my relationship towards the world. I place the responsibility on the medical structure, the way they managed things just to comply with societal expectations.”
Art & Advocacy
In developing and maintaining relationships with intersex people, Katia Repina and Carla Moral have created a repository of the stories of those who are marginalized within the very margins themselves. In telling their own stories, they take control of narratives that have alternately sensationalized or vilified their lives.
Pidgeon Pagonis, an activist who lives in Chicago, grew up as a girl and discovered they were intersex at 18. After receiving documents on their medical “treatments,” Pidgeon was shocked to learn that they received a vaginoplasty at age 11, rather than bladder surgery, as they had been told. Armed with this information, Pidgeon has become an advocate to stop surgery on children, and allow them to grow up and make the decision for themselves.
“I guess intersex kids represent for me hope for a future,” says Pidgeon, who aspires to live in a world where parents and children can trust each other enough to communicate openly. “I feel very protective of intersex kids and this is probably on a psychological level kind of like I’m going back and trying to protect myself as a child, trying to relive my childhood, to be there for myself as a child.”
Born This Way
With My Own Wings, Repina and Moral are creating a platform for people whose stories have gone untold, providing insight into the impact of forcing biological and cultural gender conformity on people, sometimes without their consent or knowledge. In pairing the photographs with their stories, the artists recognize that representation requires us to give both visibility and voice to those who have been silenced.
Alexander, who was born in Russia and now lives in New York City, says, “It was very hard. All the time I had to…hide something, to hide something from others, always hiding who I was. It always imposed a weight of guilt and shame for the fact that you’re different. Now I feel differently, but at that time I had a feeling that I was an error of nature, that someone like me was not supposed to exist, that there was something wrong with me and that I should not have been born that way. Now I am grateful for who I am.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
My Own Wings, film screening, September 2, 2021, Dor Dor Gallery, 45 Irving Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11237, USA