Missing an ‘i’: We need to step up our advocacy for intersex rights
By Zach Eisenstein, Communications Manager
A few days ago, The New York Times reported on a leaked memo, unveiling the Trump administration’s plan to define sex as “either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.”
Advocates across the country immediately mobilized—arguing this action aims to erase transgender and gender nonconforming people from existence. People took to the streets carrying transgender pride flags amid protests to assert, “Transgender rights are human rights!”
But amidst the righteous backlash, one group has largely been left out: intersex people.
Today is Intersex Awareness Day. And—especially given the recently leaked ‘Trump memo’—we need to advocate for the rights of intersex people now more than ever before.
What does it mean to be intersex?
“Intersex people have one or more of a range of variations in sex characteristics that fall outside of traditional concepts of male or female bodies.”
When we talk about sex and gender in the U.S., there’s a tendency to automatically jump to a binary way of thinking. Too often, we are told that there are only two options: male and female. But, attempting to put every human being into two, rigid categories isn’t just overly simplistic, it also fails to reflect the reality of the world we live in.
A person’s identity has nothing to do with the genitals they were born with. And, beyond that, many people are naturally born with one or more sex characteristics that do not fit into the ‘traditional,’ or binary, views of male or female bodies.
Some people are born with ambiguous genitalia. Some people are born with a combination of chromosomes beyond the typically discussed XY-for-male and XX-for-female options. And some people develop intersex characteristics during puberty or even later in life.
The term “intersex” recognizes this reality of existing “between” traditional sex characteristics. Being intersex is more common than most people think: nearly two percent of the population is intersex.
The U.S. has a history of attempting to erase intersex people.
For the better part of history, most intersex people were largely left unbothered by medical, legal, and religious groups. However, by the late 1800s, doctors started to recognize that babies born with varied sex characteristics were actually relatively common. Over the next few decades, doctors began determining arbitrary standards to maintain two distinct sex categories: male and female.
In the 1950s, John Hopkins University established the first team dedicated to “treating” intersex children through an approach that become known as “optimum gender of rearing.” This approach spread far and wide—creating a new standard for “fixing” bodies of intersex infants and children in order to make them fit into a binary mold.
And this practice of performing medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex infants and children (without their consent) in the name of “normalization” is still incredibly common today. Earlier this week, Alicia Roth Weigel, a Texas-based campaign manager and an intersectional, intersex activist, shared her experience with the New York Times, saying:
“From the second I was born, decisions were made by medical professionals about which of two gender categories my body should fit into. For me, surgery to remove my gonads as an infant was the first stop on the track to female — but the train didn’t stop there.
My family was consulted about how 5 feet 8 inches seemed like an optimal height, and informed on how hormone levels and sequences could be measured to achieve just that. The ideal breast size for my frame was also discussed; I can still remember the male doctor nodding approvingly.”
Unfortunately, as many as one in 2,000 infants and young children born with atypical sex characteristics are forced to undergo unnecessary surgeries to “fix” their bodies. With increasing evidence on the negative effects of these medically unnecessary surgeries, groups like the United Nations and the World Health Organization now consider intersex genital surgeries to be human rights violations.
Let’s advocate for intersex people today and every day.
This #IntersexAwarenessDay, we’re taking the lead from organizations like interACT. With their guidance, we’re working to be the best allies and advocates possible–as we join efforts to protect and advance the rights of intersex people everywhere. And you can take action, too:
- Do your part to spread awareness. Join conversations on social media today using #IntersexAwarenessDay and continue these conversations with family, friends, and colleagues throughout the rest of the year and beyond.
- Education yourself and your community with the facts and learn the do’s and don’ts of being an ally for the intersex community. Check out these resources from #4intersex!
- Learn the policies that are currently in place at your local hospital and talk to doctors about how they treat intersex children.
- Make sure your local and state legislators are on board with issues affecting intersex people, too.
The recently leaked ‘Trump memo’ has brought renewed attention to this administration’s endless list of attacks on the queer community in the United States. But, it’s important to remember that every letter—and those not represented by a letter—of the ever-growing LGBTQiA+ acronym matters.
Today, let’s spend a little extra time focusing on the ‘i.’ We can all make a conscious effort to include intersex folks in our advocacy efforts and work toward a world where—truly—all people’s sexual, reproductive, and human rights are both protected and respected.