Who I Am Not aims to give a voice to an often overlooked part of the LGBTQIA+ community: intersex people. The documentary by director Tünde Skovrán asks us how we define male and female, and what those definitions really mean — and do they really matter? Where do the people who cannot fit in either of these binary definitions belong?
Intersex people are born with physical sex characteristics that do not fit in typical binary notions of male or female bodies. There are more intersex people in the world than most probably realize — generally considered to be about 1.5-2% of the world’s population. Quite often, in the United States, when a child is born with both male and female sex characteristics, the physician and the parents will make a decision on what gender that child will be raised as; they will attempt to determine the sex. To back up a bit here, it’s also important to understand that sex and gender are two different things. The sex that someone is assigned at birth does not always correlate with the gender that person will identify as — and you can imagine how this is even more complex for intersex people.
Sharon-Rose Lehlohonolo Khumalo, a South African beauty queen, discovers that she is intersex not at birth, but much later, in her early 20s when she goes to visit a gynecologist. When she’s a bit older, having come out as intersex, she connects with Dimakatso Sebidi, an intersex activist. The two each seem to be the only other intersex person they know, although both Dimakatso and Sharon-Rose have friends in the LGBT+ community.
We first meet Dimakatso as they are talking to a group of doctors. Dimakatso explains that when they were born, they had both male and female genitalia. The doctor decided to remove their penis. Dimakatso was assigned female at birth, and they were raised as a girl, taking estrogen to help bolster that decision. Who I Am Not jumps right into a heavy conversation that Dimakatso has with their father about this decision. While Dimakatso has fully accepted who they are, they do strongly wish that this decision — to have their penis removed and to be raised as a girl — had not been made for them. This is what drives their work as an activist. Who I Am Not will follow Dimakatso as they grapple with the after effects of this decision being made for them.
Who I Am Not can be jarring in the way that there is zero build-up to some really intense moments — the film truly dives right into exactly what is going on with Dimakatso and Sharon-Rose. Dimakatso visits a doctor, and while the scene isn’t too explicitly graphic, what they are experiencing would be difficult for anyone to go through, and it is not easy to watch. There’s no moment to prepare for the emotional things that both Sharon-Rose and Dimakatso experience through the course of the film, which makes Who I Am Not feel so true-to-life. It feels like a very genuine look at what life is like for these two people.
While questions of transgender identities and drag queens are all over the news in the United States, intersex people are generally being left out of the conversation. Most people simply don’t know what intersex means. When Dimakatso applies for a job, the person they hand in the application to asks outright, “are you a man?” Dimakatso replies, “actually I am intersex”, and the woman replies “I would never do that — a woman acting like a man?”. Dimakatso explains that they are neither male nor female. Dimakatso comes up against blatant transphobia right along with intersexphobia time and time again through the short course of Who I Am Not.
Sharon-Rose and Dimakatso live in a relatively conservative and Christian part of South Africa. There is so little understanding of intersex people, or of anything outside the gender binary at all. It’s heartbreaking to see. Dimakatso is so patient with the people around them who are not understanding. Dimakatso explains that they use they/them pronouns and the way that they are treated by both their sister and someone at a job interview – two separate occasions – is extremely frustrating to witness. Dimakatso’s sister Jo is also critical when Dimakatso talks about wanting to get top surgery in a scene that serves to identify just how invested some cisgender people are in preserving the gender binary.
Sharon-Rose is grappling with how she will never be able to have a biological child of her own. “I’m struggling with male chromosomes in a female body”. Sharon-Rose goes on a first date that goes very well, until she tells her date that she cannot have biological children. He then politely excuses himself. Sharon-Rose will struggle over the filming of Who I Am Not to come to terms with what being a woman (or an intersex woman) means to her, and to accept that just because she cannot have biological children, she is not any less of a woman.
While so much of what Sharon-Rose and Dimakatso experience can be difficult to watch, due to the ignorance of other people, Who I Am Not is not merely a film about their traumatic experiences and difficulties. It’s also a deeply moving celebration of their lives and the work that they are doing to improve the lives of the intersex community.
Who I Am Not is an emotional film that humanizes the experiences of Sharon-Rose and Dimakatso, and makes them both relatable. They’re down to earth people, and the documentary does an excellent job of simply letting us watch them be. By seeing how the people around them react to them, it’s so plain to see how someone’s gender identity is a very individual thing — we cannot, and should not, make that decision for people. Who I Am Not is an important documentary — not only for those who already considers themselves part of the LGBTQIA+ community or allies, but for everyone.
If you watch this movie or read this review, let this be your call to remember not to leave intersex people out of the conversation. As we talk about trans rights, intersex people need to be involved. When we talk about drag shows and gender issues, intersex people need to be involved. Who I Am Not is coming out at an important time in intersex and LGBTQIA rights around the world.
Who I Am Not is screening at SXSW
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