As most of you by now know, North Carolina recently passed a law barring transgender people from using public restrooms that correspond with the sex they identify with. The rationale for this, at least according to North Carolina Governor Pat McCroy, is that it was implemented to protect children from potential child predators and pedophiles. This despite the fact that there has never been a case of a child being abducted and/or molested by a transgender person in North Carolina or any other U.S. state. The opposition argues that the bill does nothing but discriminate against transgender people and that by making someone who identifies as, and by all outward appearances appears to be, a sex other then what they were born, they are simply creating an uncomfortable situation for all involved. Civil libertarians point out that the law prevents individual municipalities from enacting anti-discrimination laws, from raising their local minimum wage above the state minimum, or creating certain regulations for city workers (always read the fine print folks).
I don’t mind saying that I find this law to be not just asinine but downright cruel. I very much believe that there are people who, despite being born with one gender, identify themselves as another. Some people are transvestites. They want to remain the sex they are born with but outwardly want of appear to be a different sex. Some people go through gender re-assignment surgery, though not all actually have their genitals altered. Katelyn Jenner, arguably the most famous transgender person in the world at the moment, admits that she still has male genitalia, has no plans to alter it, and that she’s still attracted to women. We’re just now waking up to the fact that human sexuality has a broad spectrum that we’re just beginning to understand. Certain sexual desires like rape and pedophilia are harmful. They shouldn’t be tolerated in practice but at the same time I think we need to better understand what makes these people tick. People who are gay, bi-sexual or transgender, on the other hand, pose no threat to anyone and should be free to live their lives as they see fit. At least that’s what I believe.
The opposing view is that gender re-assignment is wrong. People who can’t accept scientific evidence of homosexuality are not likely to accept that some people are transsexual. To them gender reassignment is an abomination against nature. There’s nothing in the Bible forbidding it since it would not be a medical possibility for two thousand years. Still, people will make the argument that the gender you were born with is the way that God made you and you should be happy with that.
Into this spectrum there is an even rarer minority. People who are born with both male and female genitalia. Traditionally such people have been called hermaphrodites, which is the scientific term for organisms that have both male and female characteristics. In our more politically correct times, the term intersex has become the accepted phrase. Much as I don’t care for political correctness, I can understand why people would not want their sex to be lumped in the same category as plants.
Intersex people have existed, I’m quite sure, since time began. Indeed, the ancient Greeks wrote about human hermaphrodites. All of us are actually female upon conception. Eventually either we develop an XY chromosome and are born male or we retain our XX chromosome and are born female. But there is that rare anomaly when people develop an XXY chromosome and are born with both female and male characteristics. They don’t necessarily have both a vagina and a penis. Some simply have both chromosomes but go on to develop multisexual characteristics, for example, a woman might develop facial hair or a man might develop female breasts. The point is, this is how they developed in utero or, if you prefer, this is the way God made them. And yet the intersex have, throughout human history, been among the most abused and discriminated minorities in the world.
In the past, intersex babies were probably killed if their gender duality was obvious. Some probably could hide the fact by outwardly appearing to be one gender or another. Others were ostracized from society. Back in the days of the traveling freak show intersex people were the norm, be they “the bearded lady” or a hermaphrodite who would show gawkers their genitalia. In more modern times, infants have been either physically or chemically castrated. Others are given hormones to suppress the less desirable sex. There’s been a long-standing urban legend that actress Jamie Lee Curtis was born intersex but her movie star parents – Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh – had her altered at birth. Ms. Curtis has denied this.
Recently, this has caused a great deal of controversy. Human rights groups have spoken out against such practice, arguing that children should be allowed to wait until they are old enough to figure out which gender (if either) they identify with. Until then, they should be accepted as intersex and that society should learn to tolerate them as they are.
It’s due to the recent controversy in North Carolina that I decided to write about XXY, a daring and beautiful film from Argentina about an intersex teenager. The youth in question is Alex Kraken (Ines Efron). Born with both male and female genitals, her parents have raised her as a girl. That was fine, but now Alex is fifteen. She’s starting to go through puberty. She takes medicine to suppress her hormones, to prevent her from growing facial hair and other male characteristics. Lately she’s stopped taking them. She’s starting to wonder about her gender identity.
Alex lives with her parents on a remote island off the coast of Uruguay. They originally lived in Buenos Ares but left Argentina because they feared that Alex would face discrimination in the big city. There hope was that a small community would be more understanding. Still, Alex’s sex, or more accurately, sexes, are kept secret from the townsfolk.
Alex’s father, Nestor (Ricardo Darin, one of Argentina’s foremost actors) is a Marine biologist, trying to breed a species of sea turtle that is endangered. Alex keeps an aquarium of clownfish in her room. Not insignificantly, clownfish are themselves hermaphrodites (something they don’t mention in Finding Nemo). Did Nestor buy her the clownfish to give Alex a sense of self worth? That interest creatures can be beautiful?
We learn that Alex has been suspended from school for starting a fight. Turns out the recipient of her anger is a childhood friend of hers. When Alex accompanies her father one day, the friend tries to apologize. Unfortunately Alex is still angry and the boy’s father (Jean Pierre Reguerraz) begins to taunt Alex, causing Nestor to intervene on Alex’s behalf.
Alex’s Mom, Suli (Valeria Bertuccelli) has invited a friend from Buenos Ares, Ramiro (German Palacios), his wife Erika (Carolina Peleritti) and their son Alvaro (Martin Piroyanski). Ramiro is a plastic surgeon. Suli hasn’t told him that Alex is intersex but she wants him to get to know Alex and, hopefully, surgically remove her penis so that she will be female. This doesn’t sit well with Nestor. At one point he tells a story about when Alex was born. Suli and the doctors wanted to alter the baby’s sex either chemically or surgically. Nestor refused to allow it. He says that he thought Alex was perfect from birth. Perhaps it’s his background as a biologist that made him more accepting of such genetic abnormalities in nature. Either way, he loves Alex very much, though as a sullen and distant man he might not show it. Suli, of course, also loves Alex. She just thinks her daughter’s life would be easier if she had a discernable gender.
Ramiro might not have been told that Alex is intersex, but Alex tells Alvero, his somewhat melancholy looking son. At one point Alex shows him the pills she’s no longer taking. “What are they for?” Alvero asks. “So I won’t grow a beard,” responds Alex.
They discuss their father’s respected professions. At one point they watch as Nestor saves an injured sea turtle. “Will it live?” asks Alvero. “Yes, but it’ll never go back into the sea,” responds Alex. She then asks Alvero about his father’s profession. He tells her that while he does “tits and noses” for the money his real interest is in helping people with deformities, such as someone born with eleven fingers.
Alex begins to flirt with Alvero, asking him about his masturbation habits. Eventually they are alone in the attic of a barn and give into their sexual desires. At one point Alex turns Alvero over and anally penetrates him. The scene is not very graphic. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of XXY, it’s how they feel about their first sexual act that’s important.
Unbeknownst to them, Nestor has entered the barn and seen what’s going on. He isn’t angry about it, but Alvero eventually runs out. He heads into the woods where he both cries and masturbates. Alex is also shaken. She runs off to a girlfriend’s house. The friend confesses that she too has become sexually active, with her cousin. The friend clearly knows about Alex’s sex. In the morning they take a shower together.
The next day Alvero tries to make amends with Alex.
Alvero: I don’t understand. Are you…..?
Alex: I’m both.
Alvero confesses that he enjoyed the experience. So did Alex. She doesn’t want to do it again though. She’s not sure what she wants.
Probably only one percent of the population (maybe less) will ever know what Alex is going through. Yet we all have to go through adolescents and the often-painful experience of learning who we are sexually. In one heartbreaking scene Alvero and his father have a heart to heart. When Alvero asks his Dad if he likes him, not loves him but likes him, Ramiro confesses, “kind of.” He also tells his son that he was “afraid you might be a fag.” Not all parents are as understanding as Nestor.
The movie climaxes with a harrowing scene in which some local boys assault Alex. It’s a painful scene but it’s also cathartic. Alex doesn’t want to have any surgery. She doesn’t want to take any more hormones and she doesn’t want to hide who she (or perhaps he) is. Alex will be Alex, plain and simple.
XXY was directed by Lucia Puenzo. She is the daughter of Luis Puenzo, one of Argentina’s leading directors who, among other credits, directed the 1985 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, The Official Story. He also had the privilege of directing screen legends Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda in the American film Old Gringo. Lucia broke into the Argentine film industry when her father directed her screenplay for The Whore and the Whale in 2002. The ability to physically transform ones body has been a major theme in her work. In 2013 she directed The German Doctor, which focused on the sadistic Nazi Joseph Mengele during his long exile and his attempts to help a young girl grow taller with the aid of growth hormones.
Puenzo was certainly blessed with Ines Efron, who plays Alex. Efron isn’t actually intersex, she’s female. But she has a certain attractive androgyny that makes her believable as an intersex person and her performance conveys a young person who is wise beyond her years yet is going through some terrible emotional turmoil. Martin Piroyansky is also marvelous as Alvero, portraying a young man who’s confused about his sexually and who feels rejected by his father. Special credit must also be given to cinematographer Natasha Braier, who lights this insular Uruguayan community ever so subtly in order to convey a feeling of isolation and melancholy. Uruguay is near the very southern tip of South America and this community does have a certain end of the world quality that will almost certainly remind you of the island of Faro where Ingmar Bergman shot so many of his great films.
And now I would like to make an admittedly uninformed and condescending judgment. I have the feeling that North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory doesn’t watch many movies that require one to read subtitles. Still, I would very much like for him to watch XXY. I would then like to ask him if Alex were to visit North Carolina, which public restroom should she use? The law says you must use the restroom that corresponds with the sex you were born with. Alex was born with both. Intersex people might be an extreme minority, but they are people nonetheless. Aren’t we all equal in the eyes of the law and, perhaps more importantly to Governor McCrory, in the eyes of God.
XXY is streaming on Netflix.