Intersex Solidarity Day
Amongst the various letters that have been added to ‘LGBT’ to create the more inclusive ‘LGBT+’ group, is the letter I for intersex. Intersex individuals, like all LGBT+ people, have existed for centuries, celebrated at some points in history, but frequently persecuted at others for existing outside of the male/female sex binary.
Intersex traits (of which there are a huge variety) were once celebrated, through Gods such as Hermaphroditus - a figure depicted with breasts and a phallus, representing a blend of sexual traits. In some creation stories, including some interpretations of Genesis, God first created an ‘androgyne’ -a person exhibiting a blend of sexual traits- in their image, who was then split in two to create men and women. This meant intersex people were revered in some cultures as being closer to God’s image.
However, with time and cultural/religious doctrine, a strict binary view of gender and sex became imposed. Intersex traits became heavily pathologized, despite most of these traits posing no long term health risks to the individual and, as a result of current stigma, many intersex infants are killed or abandoned at birth, or forced to undergo medical intervention. Medical intervention as standard was proposed by Dr John Money after the ‘success’ of the 1966 sex reassignment of David Reimer, which was subsequently shown to have failed. The process of forced surgery and gender assignment caused great distress, eventually resulting in David’s suicide.
Medical interventions can involve removing sex organs (sterilising them), surgery (or surgeries) to change the shape of their genitals (often affecting function and reduced sensation), and/or hormonal treatments, to name a few. The problem with these treatments is they do not allow for individual consent and assume intersex individuals need to be changed or ‘fixed’ to fit into a rigid binary – but intersex variations can occur in about 2% of the population (the same frequency at which red hair or green eyes occurs) and is just one of many genetic variations that can occur. Forced sex assignments can result in years of gender dysphoria (as in the case of David Reimer) and complex treatments to rectify non-consensual treatments at birth or through childhood – even then some things, such as sterilisation, cannot be rectified later in life; it is far better to allow individual choice at a more appropriate age.
Intersex people can face many issues even into adulthood; in the last Olympics, South African runner Caster Semenya became the centre of a controversy wherein her right to compete was debated, based on her naturally higher levels of testosterone. She was deemed by many to have an unfair advantage; yet testosterone levels represent just one of many genetic traits which may affect running ability. Furthermore, other hyperandrogenic athletes did not win against their non intersex competitors, showing that high testosterone alone is not an advantage. She was subjected to humiliating press coverage, including leaked medical reports regarding her physical anatomy which she called ‘an unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being’. This is the stigma faced by many other intersex individuals – unwanted, invasive scrutiny and misgendering, their right to self-identify ignored.
On Intersex day of solidarity, we can acknowledge the issues faced by intersex people and work towards a better future. Many intersex organisations work steadfastly to call for an end of non-consensual genital mutilation on intersex infants, to be replaced with the option for the child to grow and self-determine their gender, and what treatments (if any) they may want to pursue, as is the option for trans individuals. Amongst other things, they also campaign for global acceptance, to end abandonment, murder and infanticide of intersex children and the right to have a neutral option on birth certificates and identification if the individual so wishes, a move that is also backed by non-binary activists, to acknowledge the true diversity of sex and gender. We can all participate in ongoing work to remove the stigma behind intersex traits and tackle sensationalised media stories will hopefully allow for intersex individuals to exist in peace, outside of an incredulous spectacle-making public lens.