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American surgeons are still mutilating children who don’t look “normal”

Babies are pictured in a maternity ward at the Munich hospital ‘Rechts der Isar’ January 18, 2011. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle (GERMANY – Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY) –…
Babies are pictured in a maternity ward at the Munich hospital ‘Rechts der Isar’ January 18, 2011. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle (GERMANY – Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY) –…
Image: Reuters/Michaela Rehle
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As I inject 200mL of testosterone into my thigh, uncertain of its effects, but praying for miracles, I lament the healthy testes removed from my body at the age of 13. Internal or external, they would have guaranteed a (somewhat) normal course of male puberty, instead of the artificial female puberty imposed by my doctor.

I reflect on the stories of others who have also experienced gross transgressions against their intersex bodies. I think of how often and how bravely they have told their stories. And I sit with anger knowing that many doctors, including one who has performed clitoral reductions on intersex girls and then tested their sensitivity with vibrators, remains a well-regarded authority in pediatric urology.

For decades, doctors have not listened to us. Many surgeons and specialists do not realize the life-long emotional and physical impact of performing irreversible surgery on intersex people such as myself. Some feel they have a responsibility to mutilate children’s bodies, in order to uphold antiquated notions of sex and gender, preserving a strict male/female binary.

But variation in sexual anatomy is something that occurs at least once in every 1500 live births. It should show us how beautifully diverse nature is. It should remind us that anatomical sex is not fixed, but fluid. Yet surgery on intersex people to “correct” their anatomy continues today, even when it is cosmetic and medically unnecessary.

As an intersex activist, I am building the capacity of people to understand intersex issues and press for change. Those of us who are willing to share our experiences of medical trauma are sharing an intimate conversation with the world, telling you that despite the surgeon’s attempted physical erasure of our complexity, we are still here.

But sometimes it feels like debating ethics with butchers.

Too many in the medical profession see surgery as their duty. Too many still disregard what intersex advocates say about the impact of these surgeries. Too little has changed about the way doctors treat intersex children since I was 13.

Intersex activism is not easy because our bodies are sites of resistance. We can’t go home and disconnect from this issue after arguing about it; we live and breathe the intricacies of intersexuality every day. But our activism continues, fueled by anger and love; anger at what was done to us without our informed consent, and love for what remains of our bodies and for a future generation of young people, to be protected from such violations.

On Apr. 1, the tiny Mediterranean nation of Malta became the first in the world to guarantee the protection of intersex children: in addition to removing social and medical barriers for transgender people, the passage of its new Gender Identity, Gender Expressions and Sex Characteristics Act has outlawed genital surgeries on intersex infants.

The government of Malta listened to us.

Two years earlier, the International Intersex Forum had been held in Malta, sponsored by the International Gay and Lesbian Association. For three days in Dec. 2013, I and about 20 other intersex activists discussed the future of our movement. Perhaps more importantly, we were granted a personal meeting with Dr. Helena Dalli, Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties.

We described everything from solitary confinement for intersex prison inmates to denial of adoption to infanticide. Today, it blows my mind to think that, with time, our storytelling might have helped to shape national law in Malta.

Deep listening can transform and heal. It can lead to action. And it makes me wonder how more people and institutions would change for the better, if only those who hold power and cause trauma listened better? And how would our world be different, if they made amends or provided restitution for past wrongs?

I am asking the rest of the world’s nations, and the rest of the world’s pediatricians, urologists, endocrinologists to allow intersex children to grow up whole. One day, they can determine for themselves how their bodies align with their gender. This is the unalienable right to bodily integrity and freedom that all people are born with, and it should not be denied.