Julia lives in Kiev, Ukraine. She doesn’t leave her home until after dark. She’s afraid of being attacked by transphobic strangers. And she hasn’t been able to find a job for the past five years because the government refuses to change her passport. In her passport, Julia looks like a man, but in person she looks like a woman. This, she says, makes it impossible for her to find a job or even open a bank account. Julia, just like nearly 2 percent of the population — roughly the same percentage of people born with red hair — is intersex.
Intersex people are born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the standard definition of female or male. Intersex is not the same as being transgender. According to the Intersex advocacy group InterAct, an intersex person is “born with a variation in their internal or external sex characteristics,” whereas a transgender person “identifies with a different gender than they were assumed to be at birth, but their visible sex characteristics usually fit within what most people think of when they think of male or female bodies.”
For 2½ years, photographers Katia Repina and Carla Moral have been following Julia and 13 other intersex individuals in their project titled “My Own Wings.” They say their project, which includes people from Spain, Ukraine and the United States, aims to question the construction of gender in our society. And while each individual’s story is unique, they found their subjects share many common experiences of shame and silence.
The duo, who had limited knowledge of intersex issues before starting the project, came to a greater understanding of intersex people’s experiences from spending time with them.
“I never imagined how much secrecy and especially how much shame is a part of life for the people I met,” Repina told In Sight. “I have met many people who can’t share their experience without tears. It’s really very difficult to understand what being intersex means if you were not born one.”
Carla, on the other hand, was more surprised by the surgeries and procedures intersex infants endure. “One of the aspects that startled me the most was how conservative and restrained today’s medical model is, and how it has continuously remained this way among our society, “ she says.
Julia, who only discovered she was intersex in her 30s and identifies as a woman, agrees. “The feeling of guilt is created by the society, by doctors,” she said. Julia believes the lack of awareness of intersex issues in Ukraine made her a novelty. When she approached doctors, she says: “They would make me stand in the room, get completely naked and be surrounded by 10 to 20 complete strangers, who I saw for the first time in my life. They were interested in me as if I were a zoo animal. But I’m a human,” she told Repina and Moral.
Intersex traits are not limited to anatomy: A person could also be born with “mosaic genetics,” meaning some cells have XX chromosomes and others XY, according to the group. While some people’s intersex traits are identified at birth, others only discover such characteristics later in life.
As Pidgeon, one participant in the project from the United States, describes it, “Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations.”
Alexander, a 34-year-old Russian living in New York, said: “Even though I look like a man, I can act like a girl or someone without a gender. It’s a state of mind. It’s a sensation of flying. In reality, you can be whoever you want to be. But first, you yourself have to understand this, and that’s complicated. It’s easier to stay in your mini-world, and only say that you are a man or a woman. It’s difficult to have wings.”
From the mundane to the extraordinary, Repina and Moral’s imagery in “My Own Wings” renders these “wings” visible while illuminating the issues intersex individuals face around the globe through cinematic and intimate frames.
More on In Sight: