Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Awks SRE Convo Moment: We Need To Talk About Intersexuality

"Given the cultural barriers to intersex conversation, the amazing thing is that we would even expect women and men to have anything to say to each other for more than ten minutes at a stretch" Barbara Ehrenreich

So you know that bit of inadequate (Sex and Relationship Education) SRE that you might have got dribbled in your ear on a Friday afternoon at Country Bumpkin Comp whilst trying earnestly to put a rubbery cheap condom on an over ripe Aldi provided banana before Mrs Riddlebottom catches you blowing empty unused packet condoms up to play #rummybumpkin with your bezzie mate from English Lit. The "lesson" where you watch a 70's made sex ed video that portrays any gay man as an old pervert and heterosexual sex matchups as a "match made in heaven"?

What they forgot to tell you is that there is more than two biological types of people in this world. There are 3 - shock horror! Some people are born with both male and female genital parts. In fact, according to New Zealander Life Without Purpose, 1 in 1000 babies are born as intersexed! In the old days intersex people that openly displayed their breasts and penis were described as "abnormal" or treated as a fetish sex object to be gawped and titillated at by men of letters who had a sideline in sadomasochism.  Many such "learned" men will have seen the description of Hermaphroditus by historian Diodurus Siculus in the 1st Century BC, where he is described as the son of Hermes and Aphrodite so had a physical body which is a combination of man and woman, "in that he had a body which is beautiful and delicate like that of a woman, but has the masculine quality and vigour of a man". When they supposedly saw such visions "in the flesh"  they pursued them with fervour and discarded them at will when they had their fill of  sexual conquesting their bodies.

Thankfully, since awareness of gender fluidity and trans advocacy came to the fore in the 1960's, intersex people are beginning to get the recognition, dignity and respect they deserve.

What does it mean to be Intersex?
Individuals who are defined as intersex are those who possess variations in sex characteristics including sex hormones or genitals that "do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies" (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights). Just like transgender, intersex is an umbrella term which allows for easy definition and understanding but commentators and advocates must remember that not all intersex people will accept that definition being foisted on them, especially as many continue the fight for normativity and freedom from prejudice and discrimination.

It is still the case that some infants and children are surgically or hormonally altered in order to allow them to conform to one gender by being given "more socially acceptable sex characteristics". There is no real evidence to suggest such measures have any good outcomes for the child involved. The surgical process can actually result in sterilisation, ending the hopes and dreams of many intersex individuals to have that all important choice on whether to start a family, either as a father or mother.

Just like all individuals, intersex people have a variety of gender identities. Some may be raised as a man or a woman by their parents but may choose to identify with another gender as they go through puberty. Some choose to go through gender reassignment so that they can be seen unequivocally as a man or a woman when they reach the age of consent. Others prefer not to adhere to gender binary definitions and will never live exclusively as a man or woman. All we need to know from SRE as non-intersex individuals is that intersex peeps have the right to choose their own gender identity in a democratic society so they can live the life they wish to lead, rather than having dangerous, arbitrary restrictions placed on them by specialists or parents when they are too young or powerless to stop them.

Learning from our German Neighbours: The Case of Christiane Völling

In 2011, Christiane Völling (born Thomas) became the first intersex person known to sue successfully for damages in a case against non-consensual gender reassignment surgery that took place in 1977. She was analysed in terms of her sexuality and sexual orientation but the psychologists and gender specialists at the time never fully explained to her why it was essential that she had her female reproductive organs removed; the medical papers revealed that specialists stated the purpose of the gender reassignment surgery was to remove "testoverectomy" i.e. testicular and ovarian tissue, but no testicular tissue was present. Christiane spent a few years living as a man but soon transitioned. She later managed to gain access to her medical records, noticed the chromosomal diagnosis and nature of the surgery. Christiane then sued based on the fact that with appropriate medical treatment, she could have lived the life of an ordinary woman from 1977 onwards, and that she would never had suffered the consequences of castration as well as urethra reconstruction, including contracting urinary infections if doctors had analysed her sexuality in the correct manner. The surgeon in fact accused her of having had "a fragile mental state" at the time of her surgery and that her body was not one of a "natural female". The court determined there was no acute risk to her physical or mental health that had required such evasive surgery and ruled that Völling could not have given her full consent if she had not been properly briefed on her intersex condition and awarded her €100,000.

Intersex Human Rights:
Human rights institutions such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) and the Council of Europe are placing increased scrutiny on medical practices and fighting discrimination. The Council of Europe (2015) has highlighted several areas of concern:

  • unnecessary "normalising" treatment of intersex persons, and unnecessary pathologisation of variations in sex characteristics.
  • inclusion in equal treatment and hate crime law.
  • facilitating access to justice and reparations.
  • access to information, medical records, peer and other counselling and support.
  • respecting self-determination in gender recognition, through expeditious access to official documents.

  • Intersex people would benefit greatly from a change in Gender Recognition laws. At the moment they cannot change their gender from male to female without going through medical diagnosis, and as I previously mentioned in my last blogpost, the protected characteristic in the Equality Act (2010) desperately needs to be changed from "Gender Reassignment" to that of "Gender Identity" to ensure all intersex people as well as transgender and gender neutral people are automatically protected in cases of workplace or public service provider discrimination.

    Finally:Transgender people must remember this:

    Society has so much yet to learn about acceptance of gender and sexual diversity. Even trans individuals have to understand the truly complex nature of the separate yet inherently linked concepts of gender and sexuality. More rigorous, impartial SRE would help all students try and come to terms with such complexities. We may all be human beings but we have to try and accept our individual differences at the same time. Perhaps a day will come when we no longer need gender or sexuality to identify our very existence as an individual. Then again they say the meek will inherit the earth....

    My thanks to iwgregorio.com