When M was 7-years-old, her parents told her that she had had an operation as a young infant that meant she couldn’t have children. But, they weren’t telling her the whole story. M (who wishes not to be identified) is intersex, and only found out when she was 22-years-old, happening upon her medical history hidden in a wardrobe at home. “The operative report stated in black and white ‘testicular tissue’,” she says. “I felt wounded to the marrow.”
No Box For Me, a new film premiering in the U.S. at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 19, follows 27 year old M’s journey of self-acceptance and discovery as a young intersex person living in France. Alongside her is Deborah, 25, who is also intersex and writing her university dissertation on the subject. Living in bodies often seen as taboo by western society and western medicine, the film looks at the relationships intersex people have with their bodies and their identities in a world that is not always accepting of those born with a difference.
When Swiss filmmaker Floriane Devigne was first commissioned to create the documentary, she was unsure of how to approach the portrayal of intersex people in a sensitive way. “At first, all I could see were all the pitfalls in treating such a subject,” she tells TIME. “There was a genuine risk of reinforcing stigma and stereotypes, and reducing these people solely to what makes them different, without ever managing to change or at least shake up that representation.”
Devigne decided to explore how intersex people are treated by society, by filming M and Deborah in their ordinary environments over the course of several months, interspersed with home videos and animation segments. “Since society labels intersex as an “anomaly,” and a “disorder,” I thought it was important that I film people who are apparently perfectly “normal,” so that the viewer could identify with them.”
It’s estimated that up to 1.7% of the world’s population are born with intersex traits, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The term is used to describe people born with sex characteristics, including genitals, testicles, ovaries and chromosome patterns, that do not fit binary notions of male or female bodies. Sometimes these differing characteristics may not be apparent at birth, and other variations may not be apparent until puberty, or at all.
Often stigmatized, many intersex people are subject to violations of their human rights. One common practice worldwide is surgical intervention on intersex babies, toddlers and children to make their sex characteristics conform to binary sex stereotypes. It’s one of the film’s challenging themes, as M struggles to come to terms with her body as a result of undergoing a non-consensual surgical procedure when she was younger. Another man featured in the film, who is also intersex and interviewed by Deborah for her dissertation, likens such surgeries to rape, given their invasive nature on the bodies of people unable to consent.
“It’s like a kind of mutilation,” says Devigne. “It takes a lot of time for people to build a life and an identity. It takes a lot of time to understand that it’s unfair to change the body, because society decides that the body of intersex people is not like other people.”
Gradually, M comes to accept her body and her identity through meeting Deborah and other intersex people. Devigne says that for the four young intersex people featured in the film, it was the first time in their lives that they had met another person with a similar background to their own. “Everything became clearer through the birth of the friendship between them,” she says. Deborah and M also look to other intersex people around the world for information, such as intersex American activist Pidgeon Pagonis, whose videos are featured in No Box for Me.
Devigne started making the film three years ago in France, and says that at the time, it was a very taboo subject. While the first person in the U.S. was granted an intersex birth certificate in January 2017, France’s top court that same year ruled against an appeal by a person wanting to be recognized by the state as being of a “neutral” sex.
Now the debate about this subject is high on the agenda. Devigne says that doctors, sociologists and intersex rights activists have used No Box for Me to promote the prohibition of non-consensual operations on intersex babies. “I hope society becomes more accepting of these identities,” Devigne says, “and if the film can help further this, then I am very happy to have made it.”