Whilst queer representation has made leaps and bounds throughout the 2010s, one group has remained repeatedly overlooked: the intersex community. Invisibilised by mainstream insistence upon binary definitions of sex and gender, there is currently little awareness about the realities of being intersex although intersex people make up 1.7% of the global population, which is roughly equal to the percentage of people with red hair.
In recent years, there has been a movement to platform intersex people’s experiences, driven by intersex people themselves. HUNGER cover star River Gallo changed history with their film Ponyboi, where they play the first intersex actor playing an intersex character, Ana Roxanne is representing the intersex community in alternative music and model Hanne Gaby Odiele is spreading intersex awareness in fashion.
Against this wider background, photographer Dani Coyle (known as @inter_sexy on Instagram) has used her talents to shed a light on the diversity of intersex experience via Inter___Face: a series of tender film photographs of members of her community. Looking to broaden the perception of what it means to be intersex, this honest and tender project showcases the character and essence of intersex individuals, bypassing the medicalised gaze through which they are often viewed.
Intrigued by her work with Inter___Face, we sat down with Dani to talk about her creative passions, representation and making the world a fairer place.
Nice to meet you Dani! So tell me, how would you describe the creative work you do?
Since coming out, my personal creative works have focused almost solely on intersex and queer experiences. I’ve been a lot more creatively satisfied since. Where before I would obsess over how something looks, I’ve now come to realise that, as long as I’m speaking truthfully and openly about something real, the work will be fulfilling.
You mention that your work centres queer people as well as intersex people; I’m wondering what your experience with the LGBTQIA+ community has been? I know that not all intersex people identify with the community.
Yes, that’s true, but personally I consider the intersex experience to be an inherently queer one. Intersex people, like queer people, grow up in a society that wasn’t built with them in mind, unlike their cis-het counterparts. Our bodies and identities are seen as lesser, an insignificant minority or an afterthought. These kinds of experiences, although different for every individual, bring us together. This is why I’ve found such liberation in the queer scene: they’re spaces made for us, by us. Spaces which not only welcome otherness, but celebrate it. I existed in the cis-het world for over 20 years, and never found the kind of understanding or unconditional acceptance I have found within the queer community.
How can non-intersex people be better allies to the intersex community?
As with every marginalised and oppressed community: listen. Pass the mic. Defend and protect us. Speak up when we’re not present. Champion us, hire us, love us. To those in the LGBTQIA+ community: make room for us. Invite us to the table. Include intersex people alongside our trans and non-binary siblings. One thing I think is particularly important for allies to do is to educate themselves, not just on what intersex means, but the issues we’re fighting against.
What are these issues?
So many people’s experiences of IGM (intersex genital mutilation), as well as other forms of medicalised violence, are both shocking and heartbreaking. It really is one of the most horrific human rights violations still being performed by modern medicine today, yet ask around and chances are that most people have no idea it’s happening in hospitals everywhere. It’s crucial that allies take it upon themselves to become educated about such issues. Not only is it a lot of emotional labour for intersex people to repeatedly explain but for many it’s also a very triggering topic. The more of us that educate ourselves and others, the sooner we can stop these practices for good.
People are getting increasingly comfortable with the idea that gender really is a spectrum; how do you think we should begin educating that biological sex is a spectrum too?
Hopefully, this should be easier, because gender is an abstract construct which is harder to pin down, while sex is a biological fact. I’d like to think that fact is harder to argue with but looking at flat-earthers and climate change deniers, I get the sense it won’t be all smooth sailing. I think this kind of cultural shift needs to start in schools. To begin with, true and representative sex and health education which caters to those outside of cis-heteronormativity. Workplaces need to be providing relevant diversity and inclusion training. We need visibility in the press and media, with control over our own narratives, and as a society we need to encourage empathy and kindness towards those who differ from you.
Your photography series Inter___Face is helping to create more of this visibility for the intersex community. Was this what initially made you want to start the project?
In the beginning it was a way to connect with other intersex people, and a chance to heal through discussing our shared experiences. The main thing I’ve learned through the project is just how diverse the intersex community is. While we all shared the same feelings of otherness growing up, each one of our journeys has been different. Naturally, we’re all such different individuals and that’s okay because we’re all not just one thing.
Why was it so important for Inter___Face to show this diversity?
Since forever, the word “intersex” has been weaponised, medicalised and sensationalised, much like the people themselves who have been branded as freaks who need fixing, rather than accepted as we are. Hermaphrodite is another degrading term we have been labelled with, aimed at conjuring disgust and misinformation about those born outside of the binary, but we’re not that different from anyone else. We still desire the same things: acceptance, community, rights, love, employment, safety and shelter. Inter___face is about awareness, fighting for normalisation, and dismantling the archaic stereotypes thrust upon us by showcasing the diversity within our community, and thus humanity as a whole.
There’s a really intimate quality about the photos within the series, what was the process behind making them like?
I shoot with film because it adds ambiguity to the final image. The focus is on capturing a moment, rather than being perfectly shot – they’re not going in a medical textbook. I want to allow my subjects to be soft, vulnerable, and powerful. Normally, I meet with the person I’m photographing and we talk about our experiences; the parts that overlap and the parts that differ. It’s really refreshing to talk to someone who you don’t have to explain a certain feeling to – they just get it. After chatting for a bit, I often shoot a roll, maybe two. In the beginning, it was a lot more, maybe four or five because I was a lot less confident, but now it feels pretty natural. In my eyes shooting this series is an act of mutual growth and trust, of reclaiming autonomy over our identities, image and stories.
We’re slowly seeing an increase in intersex representation and it’s all coming from within the intersex community. Why is it so important for intersex people to reclaim their own stories?
Our narratives have always been taken away from us; by doctors, by parents, by society. We either miss out on representation or get misrepresented. It’s paramount that we have representation of our own stories because until we do, we will not achieve equality.
What’s next for you?
The ultimate goal is to be a full-time activist, artist, writer and educator. I want to be able to gain access to spaces previously inaccessible to voices like mine and to be able to pass the mic to those who’ve gone unheard so that together we can build and share a world that we can all enjoy regardless of your sex, race, gender identity, sexuality, ability or religion.