Intersex Awareness Day

...and why it matters.

Tomorrow, Ecce Homo is joining its friends and customers around the globe in celebrating Intersex Awareness Day, an internationally observed awareness day each October 26 since 2003 designed to raise awareness of the human rights violations and everyday challenges intersex people keep facing today. This annual event marks the first public demonstration by intersex people in North America, on October 26, 1996, outside the venue in Boston where the American Academy of Paediatrics was holding its annual conference. Intersex activists Morgan Holmes and Max Beck participated for the (now-defunct) Intersex Society of North America. According to Holmes' testimony, Beck and herself had intended to deliver an address "on long-term outcomes and to challenge their still-prevailing opinion that cosmetic surgery to "fix" intersexed genitals was the best course of action", but were "met, officially, with hostility and were escorted out of the conference by security guards" [1]. It should be noted that the doctors dismissed the activists as a vocal minority in a 1997 New York Times article covering the intersex action. The commemoration day itself began in 2003 with the establishment of a central awareness-raising site by Betsy Driver and Emi Koyama, which was later re-established in 2015 by Morgan Carpenter with Laura Inter of Brújula Intersexual, and the support from Open Society Foundations.

Before we delve into the challenges that intersex folks face, a few key points on intersexuality itself. According to the very informative,

  • ‘Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that don’t meet medical and social norms for female or male bodies. Intersex people suffer stigma and discrimination as a result. Intersex traits are physical variations in genitals, chromosomes, or other features that relate to the development of sex characteristics.   
  • There are many different intersex variations and many different types of intersex body. Intersex people have a wide range of different sexual orientations and gender identities. Our gender identities may match our assignments at birth or be chosen.
  •  Other words for intersex include “hermaphrodite”, “differences of sex development”, and also “disorders of sex development”. Some of these terms are strongly contested. The word “hermaphrodite” has poetic, medical, and biological associations. It is reclaimed by some intersex people, but for others, it has unpleasant connotations and may be regarded as inaccurate or misleading.   
  • Many people struggle with “disorders of sex development” or “DSD” as these intrinsical disorders intersex characteristics themselves, resulting in eugenic de-selection and prenatal treatments, as well as irreversible surgical and hormone treatments during infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Childhood treatments have well-established risks comparable to those in Female Genital Mutilation: sexual dysfunction and lack of sensation. They take place without the informed consent of children, and with only limited consent from emotionally vulnerable parents. Many activists argue that “differences of sex development” do not challenge the disordering of intersex traits as it is impossible to distinguish one DSD from another.’

When it comes to the so-called LGBTIQA+ community, despite the seemingly endless pluralization of the identities that fall under this acronym, this linguistic move does not necessarily translate into greater visibility or inclusivity of the diverse groups in the alleged ‘community’ that the acronym denotes. And this is perhaps the first implicit assumption of the ‘movement’ that the mere existence of intersex folks calls into question, namely the equal recognition of the groups of people that each of these capital letters stands for, and the concomitant homogenization of their experiences of discrimination and harassment, and hence the flattering of the different political claims. In reality, not only lumps the LGBTIQA+ acronym awkwardly together a number of different identities that recognize themselves in relation to either gender or sexuality or both but also there is a hierarchy of these identities that ends up silencing the voices of some of the groups as less important undermining this way the very notion of community to begin with.

One such group of people underrepresented by this ‘community’ are the intersex folks who in many cases remain invisible, and are not afforded the solidarity and support of the other members of the community. Yet, we need not lose sight of the fact that gender and sexuality are inextricably linked to such a degree that it would not make any sense to claim that the intersex identity is all about gender, whereas the gay identity -for example- is merely about sexuality. Gender is itself sexualized, and sexuality is highly gendered in a way that a distinction between these two notions could only be an analytical one that does not correspond to the lived and embodied reality of everydayness. 

On the other hand, when it comes to society at large, Human Rights between the Sexes, by Dan Christian Ghattas [2], found that intersex people are discriminated against worldwide: 

'‘Intersex individuals are considered individuals with a "disorder" in all areas in which Western medicine prevails. They are more or less obviously treated as sick or "abnormal", depending on the respective society.’

According to the Issue Paper [3] on human rights and intersex people published by the Council of Europe, there are at least five areas of concern that correspond largely to the main claims voiced by intersex activists:

  • The medicalization of intersex people: the equal right to life and the prevention of medical treatments without informed consent, including non-consensual medically unnecessary surgeries of sex reassignment on young intersex children, and the removal of intersex as a curable medical condition but one which can have medical treatments with informed consent. 
  • The enjoyment of human rights: the recognition of intersex rights as universal human rights with key rights among them being the right to life, the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to respect for private life, the right to health, and the rights of children. 
  • The legal recognition of gender and sex: the equal treatment under the law, the issue of registration of sex on birth certificates, the need for flexibility in assigning and reassigning legal sex/gender, and the need for non-binary sex/gender marker on identification documents. 
  • The nondiscrimination and equal treatment: the access to information, medical records, peer and other counseling and support services, the need for legislative responses to discrimination and violence, the intensification of the awareness-raising and the social inclusion efforts.    
  • The access to justice and accountability: the right to self-determination in gender recognition, through expeditious access to official documents, the accountability for suffering caused in the past, the guaranteeing of the future human rights compliance. 

Unfortunately, while intersex organizations have issued joint statements over several years, including the Malta declaration by the third International Intersex Forum, the implementation of human rights protections in legislation and regulation has progressed slowly the last decade with the exception of Malta which became the first country to outlaw non-consensual medical interventions to modify sex anatomy, including that of intersex people, in April 2015. When it comes to the queer fashion industry, it continues to ignore or even deny the existence of intersex people. Ecce Homo’s attempt to design and produce gender non-specific or non-binary underwear is the least we could do towards the opposite direction, other than raising awareness of the intersex claims with texts like this one.   

[1] Holmes, Morgan (17 October 2015). "When Max Beck and Morgan Holmes went to Boston". Intersex Day. 

[2] Ghattas, Dan Christian; Heinrich Böll Foundation (September 2013). "Human Rights Between the Sexes". 

[3] Council of Europe; Commissioner for Human Rights (April 2015), Human rights and intersex people, Issue Paper.