Intersex rights activists challenge the roots of gender oppression – and we must support them

2017 brought promising developments for intersex rights. But with much work still to be done, feminist allies must do better at sharing resources and opportunities.

Happy Mwende Kinyili Sophia Seawell
16 May 2018

Activists have campaigned for years in Germany for intersex rights.

Activists have campaigned for years in Germany for intersex rights. Photo: Jan Woitas/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In 2017, Portugal became the third country to ban the human rights abuse of intersex genital mutilation (IGM), joining Malta and Chile. Germany became the first European country to allow a third gender option on birth certificates that is neither male nor female. In Canada, a baby received a health card with ‘U’ as its sex marker. Organisations including Human Rights Watch and the European Parliament finally spoke out against genital surgery on intersex infants.

These are promising developments for intersex rights. But they are still the exception rather than the rule, and there is still much work to be done. Around the world, intersex people are denied information and the right to make choices about their own bodies. Too many face stigma and discrimination for being marked as ‘different.’

Of course, nobody is more qualified to determine how to advance intersex rights than intersex people themselves, who have first-hand experience of the prejudices and barriers they face. However, recent research by the US-based Astraea Foundation shows that almost half of all intersex rights groups globally receive no external funding. Only one in five have full-time paid staff, and these too often struggle with limited resources.

Human rights activists aren’t motivated by money – but financial resources are necessary to develop their capacity, expand their reach, and ultimately increase their impact. Unsurprisingly, the Astraea Foundation’s research found that groups without the means to put their knowledge and experience into practice are also particularly prone to burnout.

Feminist organisations and funders cannot let intersex activists do all the work with such little support. As allies, let’s step up and do better at sharing resources, knowledge and opportunities. It’s time that we recognise how integral intersex rights are to creating a world in which our bodies don’t determine our value. Stepping up for intersex rights is long overdue.

“Stepping up for intersex rights is long overdue.”

Our ‘sex’ typically refers to the physical characteristics that we are born with, while our ‘gender’ is more about how – on the basis of those characteristics – societies expect us to behave and express ourselves.The assumption that our bodies determine our social roles is what the philosopher Judith Butler calls ‘gender determinism.’ ‘Boys will be boys,’ Butler suggests, is more an order than an observation (you will play with boys’ toys, you will wear boys’ clothes).

Being categorised as male or female is for most babies their first – and one of their most determining and formative – experiences. A doctor looks at their body, and based on their external genitalia, declares the baby a boy or a girl. These are the only two options considered valid, and this sex binary is the foundation of the more widely-discussed gender binary.

But sex is actually more complex than what first meets the eye, and comprises a number of characteristics. Most of these are not visible – like internal reproductive organs and chromosomes.

Estimates suggest that almost two out of every 100 people in the world have a genetic, hormonal or anatomical sex variation from the set of characteristics typically used to divide us into ‘male’ and ‘female.’ This means that intersex individuals are about as common as redheads. But being intersex is far less visible (literally, but also in our language and narratives) and, unlike people with red hair, they are too often not considered ‘normal.’

Given that intersex conditions are not as rare as we might think, the practice of assigning all babies to one category or the other is less about what’s really ‘natural’ or some kind of scientific truth, and more a means of forcing the sex binary into existence – and intersex, out.

“Intersex conditions are not as rare as we might think.”

The discrimination, marginalisation and erasure of intersex individuals is a feminist and human rights issue. There must be no doubts about this.

It is common for doctors trained in Western medicine to perform irreversible, unnecessary and painful ‘corrective’ IGM surgeries on babies whose genitalia do not conform to binary norms.

The decision of which sex to assign the baby to is usually made based on which results surgery could more easily achieve, as well as aesthetics – so sometimes a clitoris deemed ‘too large’ will be removed, with no regard for the individual’s later sexual pleasure.

This baby will likely grow up receiving no information about their condition or surgical history. This is a gross violation of the right to self-determination and bodily integrity, and yet it is considered a standard medical practice in countries around the world.

That intersex people make up a relatively small segment of the world’s population does not mean that feminists can get a free pass to continue leaving intersex rights at the margins of our organising and funding.

In fact, this is perhaps all the more reason to ensure that our movements are inclusive of intersex realities. Our struggles are also interlinked; challenging the sex binary, as intersex rights activists are doing, is part of a feminist project that will benefit us all.

“Challenging the sex binary is part of a feminist project that will benefit us all.”

We need increased awareness of intersex realities and rights, to reduce the stigma that intersex people around the world face from doctors, friends, families and societies at large (notably the idea that there is something ‘wrong’ or unhealthy about their bodies).

IGM surgeries must end. We have to stop trying to force intersex people out of existence. Instead, we must support the right of intersex people to exist in and move through the world, with access to the resources they need, and the chance to make decisions about their own bodies.

Civil society has to recognise, include and fund intersex rights activists. Feminist movements and funders need to relinquish the idea that feminism is only about women’s rights. Space must be made for intersex people whose struggle is intertwined with that of other marginalised individuals.

Feminist funders are in a unique position to direct resources to the intersex community that is largely invisible in the human rights discourse. We can also influence other funders to get involved. We have the ability – and therefore, responsibility – to help put intersex rights activism on the map, alongside other feminist causes, right where it belongs.

At the start of 2018, the feminist fund Mama Cash officially included intersex rights activism in our mission. We have supported such work for years, but we made this change because we want to help bring the movement for intersex rights the visibility (and ultimately the resources) that it needs and deserves. We hope that you will join us. Let’s put the “I” in feminism – and feminist funding.

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