by Katherine Noble
In our society, we are often taught that everything fits into a binary system. There is good and bad, black and white, male and female. As we grow up, we tend to realize that not everything is so neatly packaged — that our world contains many shades of gray. The same is true for gender and sexuality.
“Intersex” is an umbrella term for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a mixture of reproductive or sexual anatomy and/or chromosome patterns that don’t seem to fit our standard definitions of male or female. Usually, this doesn’t incur any kind of negative health consequences, although there is an inconclusive idea that intersex people may have higher rates of infertility.
Many babies born intersex undergo cosmetic surgery within the first few months of life to bring their bodies in line with a commonly accepted female or male appearance. For many intersex folks, these invasive and medically unnecessary procedures continue throughout their adolescence without their knowledge or consent.
Intersex people do not make up a negligible portion of the population; in fact, at 1.7% of the global population, being intersex is just about as common as having red hair (1%-2%).
The entire basis of these surgeries is focused around the “normalization” of the intersex person’s genitalia. In most cases, there is no real need for the surgeries, only the idea that the child’s body doesn’t look the way the doctors or parents think they should. These kinds of procedures, and the general attitude towards “fixing” an intersex person’s body perpetuates an unfounded idea that something is wrong with them.
According to Human Rights Watch, these kinds of surgeries on intersex people can lead to damaged genital nerve endings, incontinence, reduced sexual function, and the need for lifelong hormone therapy.
Some advocate for these procedures on infants on the basis that there is a higher success rate for younger children. They also claim that this gives the child a more consistent gender identity. This argument ignores the spectrum of human gender and sexuality as well as the human rights of these children to develop their own gender identity and decide for themselves whether they wish to undergo irreversible medical procedures.
Psychologically, there is the chance that doctors and parents choose the wrong gender to assign to their child. There is no way to know which gender the child will identify with in the future, and surgeries like this make hasty assumptions with all-too-real consequences.
Ultimately, surgeries such as these are not inconsequential and should be the decision of the person whose body they involve. An infant cannot consent, and no other should get to assume what they might prefer in their adulthood. Making an irrevocable and unnecessary medical decision for the purpose of a “normal” appearance is a violation of bodily autonomy and basic human rights. It’s an egregious offense based in a binary mindset that we should strive to abolish both legally and culturally, for the health and self-determination rights of all people.