From Ovid's Metamorphosis to "Saturday Night Live"'s Pat, Western culture has marveled at those whose bodies partake of both male and female. Hermaphrodites, they were called for centuries, after Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, whom the Greek gods conjoined with the nymph Salamacis because...well, because Salamacis asked them to. Thereafter, any man who swam in the pool where Salamacis had grabbed on to Hermaphroditus would, at the latter's vengeful request, "come out half a man and...become soft when touched by the pool's waves." Today, we know it's not quite as simple as that. Hermaphrodites, now known as intersexuals, are the result of various chromosomal and hormonal events, and if they don't exactly seem normal, who, when you get right down to it, does?
The Trannyboys, Hermaphodites and Saints Film Festival, which will take place on the UW campus on Oct. 2 and 3 (7:30 p.m. in the UW Memorial Union's Fredric March Play Circle), should dispel any lingering notions that intersexuals or transsexuals really belong in a circus sideshow. Simply by introducing them to us, this collection of short documentaries, which makes up for what it lacks in polish with the sheer exotic/erotic charge of its subject matter, assigns them a special niche in the great chain of being. Who, after all, better understands the utter fluidity of gender or the price one pays for immersing oneself in that fluidity? Most of the intersexuals interviewed in these films recount the numerous surgeries that physicians convinced their parents to sign up for, all in an effort to squeeze the newborn or pubescent child into the categories of male or female.
"I wish people would have just stopped helping me," says one of the intersexuals gathered together to make Hermaphrodites Speak!, a here's-who-we-are documentary produced by the Intersex Society of North America (www.isna.org). From the moment an intersexual is born, the "help" begins, leading one of the participants in Hermaphrodites Speak! to suggest that parents of all newborns stick a yellow sign in their front yards that says "It's a baby!" Life, for many intersexuals, is a years-long gauntlet of secrets and lies and surgery. And given the fact that virtually everyone subjected to it later reports being opposed to the surgery, it seems odd that the festival closes with the slickly produced Is It a Boy or Girl?, a Discovery Channel documentary that bends over backwards to be evenhanded on this issue.
The festival's first night is given over to transsexuals; and for whatever reasons, these documentaries (the ones I've seen, anyway) seem much more in-your-face. Del LaGrace Volcano's Pansexual Public Porn manages to cram a great deal of real-live sex into its 10-minute length as its female-to-male protagonists gay-cruise their way through a British park. And Christopher Lee's Trappings of Transhood includes this declaration of independence from a Filipino-descent woman who looks an awful lot like a man: "I'm a meat-and-potatoes type of guy. I like to fuck. I like a nice blow job, too. But I do like to fuck." To each his/her own, I always say. In one of the documentaries, someone points out that there are in fact five sexes, not two. "Only five?" I scribbled in my notebook, somewhat disappointed. But think of all the possibilities....