Let’s Talk About Intersex

Christopher Seeley looks at the different moves being made across the globe tackling the stigma around being intersex.[br]INTERSEX is a term that most people have either never heard or understand very little about. Now, consider that according to the UN up to 1.7% of the world’s population may be born with intersex traits. That’s similar to the number of people in the world born with red hair. So why is this subject so rarely discussed?Intersex is a general term that encompasses a range of conditions where a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of solely male or female. There are thought to be at least 40 intersex variations that range from genetic, chromosomal, anatomic and hormonal. It most commonly involves being born with both ovarian and testicular tissue.While the last decade can be celebrated for its progressive nature in the rise to prominence of queer rights, it is arguable that intersex rights, and by extension those who are intersex, have been left behind. Intersex issues remain widely unknown, misunderstood or uncared about even in progressive or queer communities, never mind in wider society.However, over the past year some positive strides have been made to effect change on a global level. Two notable events have paved the way for a future where those who are intersex are not discriminated against, and where they are understood.The first of those is the tale of Sara Kelly Keenan. At 48 years old, she finally unlocked the clue to the mystery that had shrouded her life up until then. She was intersex. It was mostly thanks to the internet that she realised this, but an appointment with an endocrinologist (doctors who specialise on matters of the glands) confirmed that she was born genetically male with female genitalia and a mixed reproductive anatomy.
“Certainly this issue is one that is not just confined to foreign shores. Crumlin Children’s Hospital sees two or three new cases of intersex infants each year.”
Sara’s story is shocking mainly in the fact that she had lived her life for nearly fifty years without knowing the truth about her body. It is a bewildering concept to attempt to come to terms with. It is just in recent weeks however that Sara, now 55, has become the first person in the United States to obtain a birth certificate that officially recognizes her gender as ‘intersex’. For an issue that is scarcely discussed, this can be seen as one of the first, crucial steps for proper worldwide recognition of the issue.The second key turn came thanks to model Hanne Gaby Odiele. Odiele went on the record revealing she is intersex last month. She stated she did so in an effort to reduce stigma and encourage others to do the same. She hopes to use her platform to speak out against surgeries performed on intersex infants.The role of celebrities in bravely coming out as gay or lesbian should not be diminished in terms of how that helped its normalization in wider society. Hopefully the same will come in terms of the advancement of intersex rights.Certainly this issue is one that is not just confined to foreign shores. It is equally relevant to the lives of Irish citizens. Crumlin Children’s Hospital, for example, sees two or three new cases of intersex infants each year.Indeed Ireland has been praised for the progressive policies we implemented in recent years, such as legalising same-sex marriage. Yet in relation to intersex rights, Ireland should certainly make it a priority to up our game. In July 2015, Ireland was the final European Union Member State to enact legal gender recognition. Whilst the act is progressive in some forms, it has been criticized for failing intersex persons and those who do not fall within traditional gender binaries.
“Right now, it appears that the ‘I’ in LGBTQIA is often ignored, but it looks like that is changing, both in Ireland and abroad.”
The legislation may have been intended to cover intersex people, but the lack of express reference to intersex within the act may put up barriers. Thus legal acknowledgement remained out of reach for many intersex applicants and those who identify as non-binary.There is some hope however. Amnesty International Ireland actively campaigns for Intersex rights in Ireland, and takes part in and promotes Intersex Awareness day on the 26th October every year. There have been further worldwide advancements too, Malta outlawed surgeries based on social grounds on intersex children in 2015. Moreover, the United Nations Committee against Torture and Committee on Children’s Rights issued recommendations to several countries to stop medically unnecessary surgical interventions on intersex children.Right now, it appears that the ‘I’ in LGBTQIA is often ignored, but it looks like that is changing, both in Ireland and abroad. With movements and campaigns taking place, it appears that it is finally getting the recognition it deserves, and hopefully those born intersex in the future will be born into a world that recognizes and understands their gender, and affords parity of esteem from birth. Let’s make sure we don’t forget the ‘I’.