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Intersex rights? 'We are not yet even at the starting line'

Transgender activist Jane Fae explains why Intersex Awareness Day matters and needs our support
Transgender activist Jane Fae explains why Intersex Awareness Day matters and needs our support

There are times, don’t get me wrong, when it feels like you can have too much of a good thing.

Awareness, for one. I mean, we’re all aware that smoking is bad for you. As is failing to brush your teeth, or not exercising. Racism, too, can be pretty bad for your health. Ditto homophobia and transphobia. Though the message seems slowly to be getting through.

Not so with intersex issues, which is one of the reasons why I am very glad that there is a day of awareness for them and why I am even prouder, as a non-intersex person, to be able to declare my full-hearted support for those in the intersex community campaigning today for some long-awaited recognition.

Not to mention some understanding and enough appreciation of the intersex variation that the medical community will stop pathologising it or worse, regarding it as a suitable case for heavy-duty intervention.

The problem starts, in the case of intersex, with awareness and recognition.

Pick up an article on transgender issues and sooner or later you will encounter the tired old chesnut of how there are just the two genders and, frequent corollary, the argument that one can’t under any circumstances move between them. 

As evidence, the writer usually ends up appealing either to their particular deity or to some absolute 'science'.  Which is where the argument begins to unravel because gender and sex are but categorizations based on observation of similar characteristics. 

Dig a little below the surface of the familiar binary system and chances are you would quickly realize that while much of the population fits easily enough into the binary, a significant chunk of it doesn’t - 1,000 to 2,000, according to conservative estimates. As many as 4% according to other studies.

Let’s not play the numbers game. Rights, respect should never be determined by headcount.

The real point is that a bunch of real scientists – the little green men from Mars, for rinstance – arriving on planet earth would do their observations and quite likely not end up agreeing that there are just the two sexes. Nope. There are two.  And there are natural variations on the same.

But because the medical establishment has put the cart before the scientific horse, almost all study, all intervention in this area starts from the basis that there are indeed two sexes and anything else is just a failed binary: a version of male or female that doesn’t quite match up to expectations. Heaven forfend!

Next thing you know, we’ll have the medics explaining that there is some correct deity-ordained version of each sex, which is how they know scientifically they have it right.

First consequence, therefore, of this pseudo-scientific pig-headedness is that we don’t really know how many individuals have any sort of intersex variation.

Because not all manifest at birth. Some become obvious later in life. Others never do, unless one has cause to undergo much more searching tests looking at things like genes and chromosomes.

Next up, because we don’t know who is intersex or how many people fit under this banner, medical establishments across the world have seen this as a green light for them to intervene significantly, often surgically in the lives of intersex individuals – sometimes prescribing surgery for intersex children as young as two years old which, with the stated aim of 'normalizing' outward appearance can have the side-effect of condemning that individual to a life of pain and sexual dysfunction.

We understand, mostly, that reparative treatment for those who are disabled, gay or trans is not acceptable. We haven’t yet, as a society, quite got the message when it comes to intersex.

Alongside this ignorance comes a failure to protect. Intersex individuals, as they grow older, may be every bit in need of hormonal or even surgical intervention as their trans siblings.

Yet bizarrely, in the UK, other countries too, where support for gender identity is generally better, there is no pathway for the intersex individual.

Meanwhile, laws devised to protect from discrimination and abuse now recognize trans as a protected characteristic: utterly fail to provide the same protection to intersex individuals, even though both groups may face very similar issues.

So no. Intersex Awareness Day is a day that matters because when it comes to the politics of intersex, we are not yet even at the starting line.

That will happen when politicians, doctors and the general public finally get that intersex exists, that people who are intersex deserve consideration for who they are and not by virtue of being some 'failed' version of men or women; and that a natural consequence of recognition is for individuals to have civil rights as well as the right to full involvement in any treatment that concerns them. Perhaps then – and only then – can we consider the task of intersex awareness to be done.

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