Words by Olly DeHerrera, Print Production Editor
Intersexuality is the condition in which an individual possesses biological characteristics which are neither typically, or wholly, male or female. Said characteristics can be both physical and hormonal, and may be present from birth, develop in puberty, or go entirely undetected in an individual. Multiple research engagements with intersexuality have estimated that 1.7% of the world’s population is intersex, making it a more common human characteristic than red hair. Yet, whilst nearly all of us can name a red-haired friend or celebrity, very few people can even accurately describe intersexuality. People’s hostility towards difference, especially when embedded in the strict cultural beliefs in a sex and gender binary, has suppressed the voices of many intersex people and created barriers to proper care and support.
Whilst many Intersex people will identify as male or female, an increasing number are using their voices to express an identity which honours and represents their intersex bodies and rejects the categories of male and female. By taking a step back from viewing intersexuality as purely a medical condition, society can develop a better framework for understanding human identity and biology outside of normative constructs.
Sex, much like gender identity, is a spectrum. A room of cisgender women or men will possess greatly varied biology between them, with spectral differences in hormones and the physical developments they govern. The naturality of sexual variation has historically been greatly misrepresented, even within the field of science. Human Rights Watch, an American based NGO and Human Rights Watchdog, has condemned conditions within the modern medical field in which intersex children are “often subjected to “normalizing” surgeries that are irreversible, risky, and medically unnecessary.” A report also by Human Rights Watch releveled how parents of intersex children were not given proper decision-making information on their child, stating how “medical staff pressured them [parents] to undertake irreversible procedures, including surgery, and, they said, made them feel they were being unreasonable when they resisted or asked questions.”
Pressure to conform to normative notions of sexual biology has seen doctors perform invasive surgeries on children for no benefit other than social convention. Reference to such dangerous and unnecessary intersex surgeries on children and teenagers even appeared in a 2013 human rights report on torture.
The deadly nature of hostile attitudes towards intersexuality results in the murder of a tragically unknown number of babies each year globally. A small insight into this global problem is gleaned through the touching story of Zainab, a Kenyan midwife who adopted an intersex baby after the baby’s father requested it be killed after birth. Zainab told the BBC that it was sadly common in Kenya for intersex children to be murdered either by their parents or by midwives, who consider infanticide the best option for the family. Zainab told the BBC that her decision to secretly adopt the baby was based on her belief that, “the child was God’s creation and must not be killed”.
Whether religious or not, many intersex people echo Zainab’s statement, asserting their rights to live with their natural bodies and have autonomy over medical decisions. These calls mirror those across the LGBTQIA+ community in which individuals demand the right to make their own decisions about medical interventions into their body, despite the strong pressure of social norms governing sex and gender. Respecting the autonomy and lives of intersex people protects their safety and dignity, as well as opening the door to greater conversations about our bodies and our being and humans.
Photo credit: Carole Raddato – Flickr