The United Nations Just Took a Stand for Intersex People
October 26 was Intersex Awareness Day, and the United Nations used this important event to launch a new campaign focused on educating people about intersex identity and the challenges that all too often accompany it.
The campaign, entitled United Nations for Intersex Awareness, is part of the United Nations Free and Equal campaign that aims to encourage tolerance and human rights improvements for all LGBTQI people.
It explores several themes, including how intersex children can face pathologization before they are even a few days old.
Intersex identity and the threat of surgical mutilation
It’s incredibly difficult to get an accurate measure of just how many people are born with intersex characteristics. And that’s because definitions of intersex identity vary.
Generally, if a baby is born with indeterminate sex characteristics — for example, the presence of genital features of both sexes or underdeveloped genitals — he or she may be considered intersex. However, intersex conditions may also exist at the chromosomal level or be evident in internal sex organs.
Nevertheless, the United Nations estimates that about 1.7 percent of all babies born in the world have cross-sex characteristics that don’t fit typical sex definitions, a figure that aligns with other estimates.
To give an idea of just how — perhaps surprisingly — common intersex characteristics are, the United Nations notes that it’s actually about as common as red hair.
Despite how relatively common intersex births are, the medical approach has historically been to try to “fix” those children – both a direct act against the child’s human rights of self-determination and a practice that can cause complicated psychological and physical problems later in life, including a potential loss of fertility.
It is important to state that intersex conditions may require some medical intervention to correct abnormalities that interfere with other systems or cause issues with physical development.
However, recommended health guidelines from mainstream medical bodies require that doctors do not use arbitrary measures — for example, the size of a baby’s genitals — as a way to differentiate sex. Certainly, it should not be reason to recommend surgically altering a child to present as a certain sex.
Despite these recommendations, such measures are still used in many places today. As Care2 has previously reported, it is only relatively recently that such practices were stopped in the U.S. — and because of challenges in regulation, some cases may remain.
While it is true that there is no firm data on how many intersex people will experience gender dysphoria or a sense that their defined sex is wrong, a small proportion do go on to develop those feelings — especially if they have been subjected to doctors and parents deciding their sex.
For this reason, human rights groups and LGBTQI groups want to educate prospective parents about having an intersex child.
The United Nations has released this touching video which explores those themes:
UN calls on member states to take action now!
The United Nations also marked Intersex Awareness by highlighting the first-of-its kind statement on allowing intersex children to discover their own sense of identity, as well as the rights of intersex adults to live affirmed in who they are.
The statement says:
In countries around the world, intersex infants, children and adolescents are subjected to medically unnecessary surgeries, hormonal treatments and other procedures in an attempt to forcibly change their appearance to be in line with societal expectations about female and male bodies. When, as is frequently the case, these procedures are performed without the full, free and informed consent of the person concerned, they amount to violations of fundamental human rights.
The statement goes on to stress the importance of immediate action to prevent such violations:
States must, as a matter of urgency, prohibit medically unnecessary surgery and procedures on intersex children. They must uphold the autonomy of intersex adults and children and their rights to health, to physical and mental integrity, to live free from violence and harmful practices and to be free from torture and ill-treatment. Intersex children and their parents should be provided with support and counselling, including from peers.
Ending these abuses will also require States to raise awareness of the rights of intersex people, to protect them from discrimination on ground of sex characteristics, including in access to health care, education, employment, sports and in obtaining official documents, as well as special protection when they are deprived of liberty. They should also combat the root causes of these violations such as harmful stereotypes, stigma and pathologization and provide training to health professionals and public officials, including legislators, the judiciary and policy-makers.
While the United Nations does not have the power to directly prevent abuses against intersex people, its statements add to growing calls for recognition of intersex identity and broader gender diversity.
As the above statement highlights, honoring intersex people — and, indeed, trans identity — requires us to reevaluate ID documents, such as passports and drivers licenses, and ensure that appropriate information can be reflected through third gender or no-gender options. Only through these means can we ensure that intersex and trans people do not face barriers in travel, employment or housing.
While there are still many steps yet to be taken on the journey to honoring the liberty and basic rights of intersex people, the UN has made an important move. By highlighting the many issues intersex people face today, the organization calls on member states to confront and wipe out discrimination and stigma against intersex identity.
Photo Credit: Scazon/Flickr