A short film by Selasie Djameh about intersex. The film aims to spread awareness, shatter the stigma and normalise intersex in Ghana, Africa and worldwide.
Jessica, a first-year university student suffers an emotional breakdown following the discovery that she was born intersex, but when she meets free-spirited Sally, she realises that she can be herself and still find true acceptance.
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On Baby Girl: An Intersex Story – In Conversation With Selasie Djameh
Living in a world where your identity is stigmatized can be challenging and lonely, more so when that identity is barely understood or spoken about. With Baby Girl: An Intersex Story, filmmaker Selasie Djameh provides us with a model of how we can create community and safe spaces for marginalized people. This coming of age film follows 24 hours into the life of a girl who discovers she’s intersex. She meets Sally and Charles, two siblings that offer a safe haven while she comes to terms with this truth. What unfolds is a testament to the power of community and sincere allyship.
Sally Vusi: What drew you to create this particular film in the way that you have?
Selasie Djameh: Though I was familiar with the concept of intersex, my interest peaked in 2018 when I discovered an intersex Youtuber called Pidgeon who discusses their experiences with unconsensual surgeries,and interACT, an intersex advocacy organization. The opportinity to create Baby Girl came though a workshop called Queer Universities organized by Drama Queens, a theatre for activism organization in Ghana. Queer Universities was inviting anyone who wanted to make a film about gender, disability or LGBTQIA+ to apply. This felt like the perfect opportunity for me to blend my two passions: activism and filmmaking. I already had some background in using film for activism – in making films to carry positive messages and hopefully change people’s viewpoints. My film was among those selected for funding.
When I started production, I struggled to find Ghanaian intersex people who were out and visible to consult with. In the end I decided to expand my search to the whole continent instead of limiting it to Ghana. I ended up reaching out to Babalwa Mtshawu, a South Africa YouTuber an intersex (whose video appears in the film) and Nsofor Chigozie, a Nigerian activist who tweeted about her experience discovering that she is intersex. I consulted with Babalwa right from the beginning, and based the story loosely around her experience.I wanted the film to serve as a sort of how-to guide in terms of what people should do when someone comes out to them as intersex, how to respond with compassion, especially if they are in distress.
I also wanted intersex people watching the film to realize that they are not alone and that there are people out there who will accept them for who they are. I was very conscious of not making a film that was trauma porn. So many queer films are tragic and often end with something terrible happening to the main character. I wanted to defy that trope and make a fairly light-hearted film that was hopeful but wasn’t overly optimistic. Ultimately I really wanted this to be a positive film.
SV: One of the first scenes of the film is our main character Jessica’s diagnosis. It is poignant in that it reveals this idea of “normalcy” that intersex people are advised to be able to return to after a few minor “adjustments”. Can you expand on the understanding you gained regarding medical interventions for intersex conditions, especially in Ghana?
SD: During my research, I found that many intersex people’s interactions with doctors and medical professionals were negative. They were often dehumanized and treated like specimens to be observed. I realized that I wanted Jessica to have a doctor who gives her hope and treats her with kindness so this diagnosis is less of a blow to her. I’m using the term diagnosis here because I’m talking in the medical context but intersex is not a disease, it’s just a difference of sex development. This was in part inspired by a kind and understanding doctor I met when I was doing my research.
One of the things I found was that many intersex people are queer, and if they are heterosexual or have sex with men, they don’t necessarily like penetration. The idea that doctors and society in general believe that there is no sex without penetration, means that many intersex girls go through unnecessary and painful procedures just to prepare themselves for penetrative sex with men when at that age, they don’t even know if they are attracted to men or what kind of sex they like.
Most of the negative experiences intersex people face are due to societal stigma and not with being intersex. A lot of these prescribed “treatments” are really just preparing intersex people to fit into cis-hetero roles. It’s believed that this is what will give them a sense of being normal and a sense of being accepted. We as a society are the ones who need to expand our knowledge on sex and gender outside of cis-hetero ideas. There is so much we assume that just isn’t true.
I’m not entirely comfortable with my role as a cis non-intersex person telling this story but what pushed me to do it was the fact that there was very little information on the topic. The stigma in Ghana and Africa is still very present so very few intersex people are ready and willing to expose themselves to harm and more danger by coming out to tell their stories. I wanted to use my privilege to create some awareness. Despite working with intersex consultants Babalwa and Nsofor and receiving positive feedback from them, I’m still aware of my privilege and the fact that I’m ultimately not the best person to tell this story.
SV: Cultural context matters when investigating the root of prejudiced attitudes as well as developing measures to counter them. What did you uncover during your research in terms of policies, societal attitudes and behaviours?
SD: Intersex is largely seen as an unwanted, strange condition in Ghana and Africa. Here in Ghana, we are very spiritual and tend to explain things in terms of spirituality. In general, any kind of physical difference or medical condition is seen as a curse or caused by something spiritual or simply the mother’s fault for doing something wrong during her pregnancy. Many intersex babies who have obvious genital diferences tend to be abandoned or killed at birth and those whose differences are not discovered until later in life tend to face bullying and societal stigma.
The doctor I spoke to typically works with babies. In her experience, when babies are born with obvious genital differences, it’s a shock for the whole family. Intersex babies were frequenlty found dead after visits from their gradmothers. It is thought that grandmothers kill intersex babies because they afraid for their their daughters and want to spare them the stigma of having a child that is different or seen as deformed. These grandmothers erroneously believe they are doing the right thing by ending the child’s life. Once hospitals realized the trend of intersex babies dying after grandmothers’ visits, they actually started banning grandmothers from the wards after birth.
Although most people haven’t heard of the term “intersex”, there are already negative stereotypes about hermaphroditism, which was the term used to refer to intersex in the past. It is no longer in use and is considered offensive. I had to confront these stereotypes while putting together my film crew, which was quite difficult because a lot of people don’t want to be associated with anything related to the LGBTQIA+. For each crew member, I had to take time to tell them about the topic and explain intersex to them. I gave them resources and time to read, and then got back to them afterwards to find out if they were still interested in working on the project after all they’d learned about the project and the subject matter. Even though I primarily approached people I knew to be LGBTQIA+ allies I still found myself taking on the role of eductor as it related to intersex identity.
This year on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia & Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), I had sent a message around to our film Whatsapp group about ways to be a better ally. One of our crew members actually responded and thanked me for the opportunity that I gave him to learn more about the LGBTQIA+ community, how much he’d learned about intersex working on this project and that even though he still has a lot to learn, this project provided him with a learning opportunity he otherwise would not have had. I felt so good about this because it affirmed the reasons behind why I set out to make this film.
SV: One of the other characters in this film is queer coded but we as the audience get no explicit confirmation of his orientation. Considering that this film is clearly rooted in facets of the queer experience, why this narrative choice?
SD: Charles, the character in question is the person who Jessica relates the most with. He has also faced a similar struggle of feeling like who he is is not good enough and has faced rejection by society. I really wanted to have a character in the film who could somehow relate to Jessica’s concerns and struggles. I didn’t want someone who had the exact same experience of being intersex as I felt like that may have been unrealistic. Since intersex people are a fairly small minority, it would have been a little too convenient. I decided to go with a queer character but unfortunately, as I was doing more research I realized that if I wanted my film to reach as many people as possible then I couldn’t make him explicitly queer.
Ghana is still deeply homophobic, even if our situation may not be as harsh as some other countries in terms of homophobic violence. If you are a gay or queer person you cannot live your life openly, and this is not just about relationships or sex. If you are someone who is seen as not straight in terms of your mannerisms, the way you dress or the way you talk, your life is going to be more difficult.
Queer coding Charles allows queer people and allies to recognize or guess that he is queer, but but remains aumbiguous enough not to fully alienate viewers who may still hold homophobic views. It’s still quite difficult to have an openly gay or queer character in a film especially if you want it to have a wide release. I wasn’t exactly pleased with this compromise but I had to make choices in order to achieve the goals of the film which ultimately is to educate people on intersex and to make people more accepting.
Ideally I would have made the film more queer, but in terms of using the film for activism I had to really think about who my audience is – people who may have negative ideas of what intersex is and also probably hold negative biases towards gay people. We’re still in the phase where we are trying to change minds, we’re not yet at the point where we can be open and celebrate queerness as a valid mode of existence.
It’s not that queer people are begging for acceptance. It’s just that if we want change in society, then we need to actively engage people who hold stereotypes and break them down. Unfortunately, queerphobia is so ubiquitous and entrenched that we need to make these kind of efforts to lay the ground before we can get to the stage where we can just depict queer people living their lives freely, and have less of a need to make films centred on the queer or intersex struggle.
I can’t wait to the time where we can just have a casual intersex character in a film rather than making a whole film about why intersex people need to be accepted/accept themselves. I do have hope that we’ll get there soon in Ghana because we are already making strides.
What really struck me in this film was the way Jessica was always surrounded with love when she needed it most. As she goes through the cycle of grief – mourning her old self and reality and accepting the new one – nobody pressures her to say anything. She is given the time she needs and reassured that she’ll have open and caring ears to hear her when she’s ready. The way Charles and Sally listen to her is very intentional: they don’t talk for or above Jessica, they simply hold the space where she begins to heal herself.