Now, more than ever, we should be aware of intersex people — center them, fight for them, listen to them, protect them.
Intersex is a term used to describe those born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. Those sex traits make it virtually impossible to classify someone as strictly male or female. There are over 30 intersex variations (some are "male and female," some are "both," some are neither), and intersex traits occur in up to 1.7% of the population — making it as common as people born with red hair. Intersex people, like anyone else, exhibit a broad range of gender identities and expressions.
A series of national actions and protests following last week's incendiary Trump memo saw people taking to the streets and social media advocating for trans people and gender nonconforming people likely to be affected by the proposed policy. But what about intersex individuals, whose specific understanding of gender identity is policed and marginalized as much if not more so? How does the Trump memo affect them? For intersex people, it is literally a matter of biology that cannot be pre-determined or controlled.
There are any number of abuses those born intersex are subjected to, the worst of them being that countless intersex youth the world over are subjected to non-consensual surgeries, up to and including sterilization, in an effort to "normalize" them, so that they might fit more squarely into the male-female binary. The United Nations classes these surgeries as human rights violations. (For global reference to help contextualize just how negatively impactful the implications of Trump's memo are for intersex people, look at the stories of Olympic track athletes Dutee Chand and Caster Semenya.)
We contacted cultural anthropologist Katrina Karkazis, who PAPER spoke with about those aforementioned cases for our Sports Issue. She had this to say about Trump's memo: "The proposed policy seeks to create a bureaucratic definition of sex based on erroneous beliefs about both biology and gender. It is both unfounded and cruel and it will do even more harm to transgender, intersex, and GNC people by fostering misunderstanding and further discrimination, making it impossible for these individuals to secure the rights to which they are entitled in health care, education, and housing. Many people have fought incredible battles to secure these rights and freedoms and it is all of our obligation to make sure they are upheld and extended to everyone."
Additionally, initiatives and events produced by intersex advocates and organizations, such as Intersex Awareness Day, center intersex people so they do not become invisible, especially in discussions like those illuminated by the Trump memo. PAPER reached out to a few prominent intersex figures and asked them to tell their stories, and for feedback on what they believe is the work still ahead in the fight for bodily autonomy, which also includes calls to action you can support.
River Gallo, actor, filmmaker, and artist
As an intersex person, the Trump memo is terrifying. It is dehumanizing, violating, oppressive, and above all it is proof that this administration has a fascist agenda and does not care to give equal rights to all American citizens. At this point, we as the LGBTQIA+ community have no choice but to be politically engaged. The government under no circumstances have a right to impose your gender and let it be decided at birth based on "biological proof".
"Our bodies are born outside of the binary, and no doctor or government comprised of old white men have the right to make that decision for us."
Humans no matter what age, have the right to have autonomy over their own bodies and identify as they wish. Intersex people are proof that gender occurs on a spectrum, not binary. Intersex people are neither male nor female biologically. Our bodies are born outside of the binary, and no doctor or government comprised of old white men have the right to make that decision for us. As much as I am angry, I am also curious. Curious as to what its going take for our straight allies to realize the severity of what the Trump memo could actually do to the LGBTQIA+ community. How far and how bad must things get for Americans to realize freedom and democracy is a privilege? We have to work to uphold it. When will our straight allies realize that if we don't mobilize and help each other out, we can have human rights taken away from trans, intersex, and GNC people?
Call to action: Support intersex people directly as our narratives and perspectives are seldom mentioned in the gender dialogue. Support interACT, the only national intersex youth organization in the country [its current board president is renowned educator and author, Georgiann Davis].
Support intersex artists such as Anick Soni and his documentary #TheIntersexDiaries and support Gallo's film Ponyboi which will be the first narrative film in cinema history created by and starring an out intersex artist.
Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, Associate professor of sociology and director of LGBT+ Studies at University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee
The Health and Human Services memo seeking to define gender transition out of existence is aimed at eradicating trans people, and intersex people are not necessarily its intended victims. But if someone were shooting at trans people, and didn't care or even notice that they had to fire through a crowd of intersex people to do so, the intersex people in the line of fire would be no less violated because they were "collateral damage." We need others to see how we are equally harmed, and we must rise up to protect ourselves together with our endosex transgender siblings.
Intersex advocates have been fighting for years with three main goals. The first is to put an stop to surgeries and other medical procedures being forced upon non-consenting intersex children to try to erase our sex variance. The second is to educate parents and society about how intersex statuses are actually very common, and that intersex kids will be fine, so long as they have support from their families and communities. And the last is to fight discrimination against people who are physically sex variant. This memo would undo all of our work, by refusing to recognize sex variant bodies as acceptable. It would make rates of unwanted surgeries increase. It would tell parents and society our bodies are not okay. And it would support discrimination against people whose bodies are neither male nor female.
"This memo would undo all of our work, by refusing to recognize sex variant bodies as acceptable. It would make rates of unwanted surgeries increase. It would tell parents and society our bodies are not OK. And it would support discrimination against people whose bodies are neither male nor female."
This memo also leads to a specific intersex harm by stating that binary sex is defined by chromosomes. Of all the sex characteristics that can vary in intersex people — genitals, gonads, hormones and chromosomes — up until now, chromosomes have been the least relevant to both our lived experience, and to decisions doctors have made about intervening in our bodies. The memo picks chromosomes as the one "real" sex determinant because its goal is to declare gender transition impossible, and the one sex characteristic doctors can't change are our chromosomes. Since they can't change chromosomes, doctors change our genitals and gonads and hormones instead.
For example, when intersex children are born with Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, with XY chromosomes and intermediate genitalia, often doctors surgically assign them female. This may be very traumatic for the child, but imagine how much more traumatic it would be to hear, "Wait, the federal government now states that anyone with XY chromosomes is a man. You are living in the wrong gender. The surgeons who operated on you shouldn't have cut off your phallus, whoops. Guess you'll need a new surgery." This is horribly cruel, and the fact that this is probably an unintended consequence for memo authors who have little knowledge of intersex people doesn't make it better. If anything, it adds insult to injury.
Pidgeon Pagonis, Chicago-based intersex activist, filmmaker, and co-founder of the Intersex Justice Project
I was born with the intersex variation known as Partial Androgen Insensitivity. This variation makes it so that my body, which has XY chromosomes, looks "typically female" on the outside and neither typically male nor female on the inside. Instead, I was born with a fairly typically vulva, a slightly enlarged clitoris (1.5 cm when stretched) and a smaller than average "blind-ending" vagina. Internally, I had no uterus or cervix and undescended testes. If left alone, my testes would have produced androgen (testosterone) during puberty and my body, being partially insensitive to androgens, would have ignored some of it, and like magic, converted some of it into estrogen.
Externally, my body would have appeared somewhat androgynous due its inability to fully synthesize androgens. With the exception of a small chance of our undescended testes becoming cancerous (less than 15%) later in life, my body — and others like it — have no health issues related to being a bit different than most. But this didn't stop surgeons from operating upon me. They castrated me when I was one-years-old, gave me a clitorectomy when I was four, and performed a vaginoplasty that left me scarred and insensitive when I was 11. As illustrated by my story, one's chromosomes, sex and gender identity and expression do not necessarily align and for this reason the administration's attempts to define sex based on one's chromosomes makes as much sense as Trump's tax cuts for the wealthy.
If the new head of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights [and former Heritage Foundation employee] Roger Severino eventually declares that sex and gender are binary [XX and XY only] and correlated [XX = woman and XY = male] and sex cannot be changed, this will be devastating for trans people — especially those who already inhabit multiple marginalized identities. Yet, I'm afraid not much will change for intersex people. For decades, pediatric urologists — such as Dr. Earl Cheng at Lurie Children's Hospital and Dix Poppas at New York Presbyterian — have already been utilizing this falsehood in their surgical attempts to violently erase us. If this re-definition is codified into federal law, this will only serve to give surgeons who ignore the United Nations more fuel for their already existing intersex-phobic fire.
There is always the chance that things could get a lot worse. Just as we are starting to see more and more children's hospitals, like Lurie Childrens [Hospital in Chicago], have programs that support trans youth, while ironically not supporting intersex youth, and we're seeing more and more parents advocate for their intersex children's autonomy, this re-definition could squash this progress. For instance, critical funding steams could possibly be cut from trans youth clinics and in the case of intersex kids, a parent of an intersex kid who rightfully decides they don't want to allow surgeons to "fix" their child could be met with: "Sorry, sex reassignment surgery is the law now."
In imagining this horrific possibility, I want to also imagine alternate possibilities. I want to think about what can happen if children's hospitals don't cower and instead seize this as an opportunity to get on the right side of intersex, trans and GNC history. Hospitals like Lurie Childrens, who have intimate understandings of how sex and gender do not correlate and how one's chromosomes don't have an effect on one's gender, can fight against this measure to protect intersex patients' rights. That's why the Intersex Justice Project is calling on Lurie Childrens to become the first hospital to sign on to our #EndIntersexSurgery campaign which calls on them to ban medically unnecessary "cosmetic" surgical interventions.
"Now is the time to look within ourselves and contend with the ways in which we have been complicit in the creation of this current intersex and transphobic atmosphere."
Now is the time to look within ourselves and contend with the ways in which we have been complicit in the creation of this current intersex and transphobic atomsophere. Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), and everyone who believes that transwomen are not "real" women, I'm looking at you.
I also would like to point out how hypocritical this is to come from Trump's administration, given that almost exactly a year go on Intersex Awareness Day in 2016, his own State Department publicly declared their support for intersex people.
Call to action: Join the Intersex Justice Project and Voices4, who co-organized the Intersex Awareness Day events last weekend in Chicago and New York. Support the Justice Project's #EndIntersexSurgery campaign.
Lastly, as Chase Strangio mentioned recently, the administration keeps moving the target on what the definition of gender is. Early on, they declared gender was what was printed on your birth certificate. Then, when they realized people could have that changed, gender was equated with one's genitalia. When they realized this could be changed too, they now have seemed to settled (temporarily) on a chromosomal definition of sex.
Proponents of intersex surgery are doing a similar shell game. When we demand that they end intersex genital mutilation, the surgeons who were calling us intersex in recently published journal articles suddenly declare we're not intersex anymore and instead we're females or males with genital anomalies. When we chant "respect intersex kids' rights," they flip the script again and state "parents rights!" And this is symptomatic of a larger irony in which the US calls out FGM abroad, while allowing surgeons to commit intersex genital mutilation here. Anything to uphold the false sex/gender binary I suppose. While this dangerous cat and mouse game is maddening and meant to wear us down, it's important to note that they are essentially proving our point: there is no fixed definition of sex and gender.
"We must give them hell, or else hell will become the law."
The United States has always attempted to brutally erase intersex, trans, and GNC people. This is nothing new. One only needs to look as far back at how settlers colonialists attempted to decimate two-spirit people, or the ways in which the medical industrial complex has attempted to do the same to children born with intersex traits since the 1950s, and how the state attempted to allow AIDS to ravage our queer and trans communities. Yet, we fought back.
Trust that the administration and those invested in this re-definition of sex are vigilantly watching our response to this "leak." They are testing the waters. We must give them hell, or else hell will become the law.
Courtesy of Hunter Abrams