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Stop Performing Nonconsensual, Medically Unnecessary Surgeries on Young Intersex Children

Intersex Flag
Intersex Flag
Chase Strangio,
Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project
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October 26, 2017

Each year, doctors around the United States perform medically unnecessary, irreversible surgeries on children and infants with intersex traits to “normalize” their bodies. The procedures are done before it is possible for the individual child to consent or even communicate their gender to medical providers making legal and medical sex assignments for them. Justified by parents, doctors, and others, at least in part, by a desire to forcibly avoid the future stigma of a perceived nonconforming body, these surgeries can lead to a lifetime of trauma for the intersex infants on whom they are performed.

On this Intersex Awareness Day, I urge my fellow trans advocates to call on medical associations and hospitals to join the international human rights community in banning nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries on children with intersex traits. It is plainly unethical, cruel, and unnecessary to perform surgeries on the genitals of children and infants because we are afraid that their bodies do not seem normal and out of an impulse to “assign” a binary sex to a child before that child can articulate their gender. We must do better than that. We must celebrate the beauty of our differences rather than fear such difference so deeply that we cut into the genitals of our kids to erase it.

According to InterACT, a leading advocacy organization for intersex youth:

“The term intersex is an umbrella term that refers to people who have one or more of a range of variations in sex characteristics that fall outside of traditional conceptions of male or female bodies. For example, intersex people may have variations in their chromosomes, genitals, or internal organs like testes or ovaries.”

Approximately one out of 2,000 children born are “faced with unnecessary medical intervention at an early age.” Like transgender individuals, intersex people face discrimination and violence because they do not conform to societal gender norms. And they have increasingly become targets for discrimination by lawmakers seeking to expel gender nonconforming individuals from single-sex spaces like restrooms.

Though the discrimination that intersex individuals and transgender individuals face stems from the same social, medical, and political forces that want to enforce binary notions of biologically based sexual difference, our communities are often pitted against each other. This is because intersex individuals have to fight to be free from nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgery, while trans individuals are forced to fight to gain access to medically necessary health care, including some of the same surgical procedures that are performed nonconsensually on intersex infants. But our communities — at times overlapping — are natural allies in the fight against medical and state control over the autonomy and health needs of our bodies.

In the case of both intersex and transgender patients, all we’re asking for is the right to decide for ourselves who we are. This means listening to young people and giving them a chance to embrace their identities and bodies and articulate their gender for themselves. For intersex youth, this can only happen if doctors refrain from performing surgeries on youth before they are capable of understanding and consenting to those surgeries. For all youth, this also means appreciating that however our sexed body parts align — or however they may differ from our expectations of how male or female bodies should look — our understanding of who we are is what should control both how we are understood in society and the medical care that we receive.

Our bodies may not always meet societal expectations of what is normal, but they are ours and they are beautiful. For parents and doctors to decide in infancy to “normalize” a body to fit societal expectations of binary-sexed bodies is to reinforce our fears of difference. And by doing so, they erase trans and intersex people from society.

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