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Hey Doctors, Stop Operating On Intersex Babies

The UKIA activist group is campaigning for better rights for British intersex people.

by Nick Chester
03 March 2014, 7:00am

Attendees at the International Intersex Forum (Photo via)

Over the past few years, British society has made a lot of progress in terms of gay rights and gender equality. Legislation to allow same-sex marriage was passed, transgender people were given full legal recognition of the gender they identify with and it's now very rare that we get politicians blaming natural disasters on gay people.

However, there's one group that doesn't appear to have benefitted from these growing levels of equality: the UK's 30,000-strong intersex population. Despite being born with physical characteristics that don't allow them to be distinctly identified as either male or female, there is a legal imperative for intersex babies to be assigned a gender on their birth certificates. Often, medical professionals operate on babies and young children to "normalise" their genitalia, which – unsurprisingly – can lead to a host of problems in later life, like not identifying with the gender role they've been forced to inhabit.    

An activist group called the UK Intersex Association (UKIA) is campaigning to change this, putting pressure on the government to introduce a law that would allow intersex people to legally belong to a sex that is considered neither male nor female. I spoke to UKIA director Dr Jay Hayes-Light to find out more about the organisation and its mission.  

Dr Jay Hayes-Light

VICE: How did UKIA first come about?
Dr Hayes-Light: It was founded in 2000 by a group of people who believed that, in addition to a network of support groups each focusing on a specific intersex condition, an organisation dedicated to research, education and political campaigning was needed. UKIA is now one of the oldest campaign groups in the UK dedicated to intersex issues, irrespective of which form an intersex condition takes. As the name implies, the original aim was to serve the needs of intersex people and their families in the UK, but due to requests from overseas UKIA now has associates in many countries.

What are some of the problems that intersex people face because of the government's refusal to recognise a gender other than male or female?
In the UK, provision for those who vary from the binary concept of sexuality, gender identity and anatomy has taken giant strides in recent years. Despite this progress, however, a veil of secrecy and misinformation has kept intersex out of the public eye. The forward steps taken in relation to the recognition of transsexual people’s rights and, more recently, same sex marriage, have not been reflected in relation to intersex people. Even as recently as 2010, UK residents born with an intersex condition weren't included in any category within the Equality Act. The Equality and Human Rights Commission considers that "intersex" is not one of our protected characteristics. This denial of rights is a reflection of society’s view that "intersex" doesn't really exist, and if it does it can be "cured" by medical intervention.

And it's still not possible to change birth certificates either, right?
No. Despite the major advancement for trans people via the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which recognised the right of trans people to change their birth registration to match their gender role, intersex people are still unable to change their birth certificates unless they follow the path laid down for trans people. That consists of psychiatric assessment, the supposed "real-life test" [where individuals live full-time as their preferred gender role to prove they can function in society in that gender role] and proof that they are living in the gender role opposite to the one on their original birth certificate, which – for many intersex people – was incorrect to start with. Being outside the gates has repercussions for many aspects of life that others take for granted, such as marriage and adoption.

Can you tell me about your campaign to change the law?
Some years ago, New Zealand and Australia officially recognised intersex people who don't identify as the traditional concept of male or female. More recently, Germany followed this positive change in their legislation. I have placed a high priority on changing the law in the UK to recognise that a large minority in society do not identify with binary labels and that the rush to choose one of two markers on an infant's birth certificate can often be a catalyst for surgical reassignment to a specific sex category.

A protest in Glasgow against intersex genital mutilation (Photo via stop.genitalmutilation.org

What risks are associated with coercing intersex people into adopting the label of either male or female?
The current requirement to register a child’s birth as male or female can rush parents into seeking a solution. And the response from the medical profession has often been to use surgery to assign the infant to one of just two sexes. In addition to this, the inflexibility when it comes to the birth registration requirement ignores the reality that not everyone falls into line with what is a concept rather than a fact. There are many more people in the UK who reject binary labels, but even if there were just four who came forward, if we're truly committed to human rights then allowing a third category would be logical.

The UKIA is also campaigning against non-consensual surgery given to intersex babies and young people in order to assign them a traditional gender. Can you tell me about that?
Yes, we've become increasingly aware that the range of labels that we use to simplify what is, in reality, a very complex universe can, over time, become redundant and can also be harmful in that they misrepresent reality. Terms such as "masculine" and "feminine" are more a social construct than a reflection of reality. Discussions relating to what is "normal" and what constitutes "abnormal" have different meanings across cultures. The tendency to supposedly protect both the individual and the rest of society by using such drastic measures as surgically changing a person’s anatomy without their consent is the height of arrogance, irrespective of how much surgical skills have advanced.

Do you think the refusal to recognise intersex status on birth certificates leads to an identity crisis for some intersex people because they belong to a gender that officially doesn’t exist?
UKIA cannot speak generally on behalf of intersex people in matters relating to personal identity. What we can speak about is the range of personal life experiences of those who work with us and have spoken openly about issues such as gender identity. Most intersex people do have a clear idea as to their gender identity, which ranges through male, female, neither or a blend of more than one. So far, however, society and the law has required them to choose between male or female, and a refusal to comply can lead to complications in a range of public services. To quote the UKIA Secretary: "Given the choice of ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘intersex’, I would unhesitatingly select ‘intersex’, but society doesn't give me that option, so I select ‘female’ with deep reservations, gritting my teeth at a society which will not accept my right to simply be who I am.’"

So what are the main barriers stopping intersex from being included as an option on birth certificates?
If you were to put this question to a general audience, there would be a variety of responses, ranging from disbelief that such a phenomenon exists among human beings, through to the popular default of transsexualism or homosexuality. If you were to address the same question to a politician, the result may well be the same. The main barrier, therefore, would be based on lack of awareness and a general reluctance to engage in yet another concession to what is considered to be a minority group.

In 2004, the gender recognition debate resulted in a law to allow trans people to change their birth certificate and, in 2013, the Commons and the Lords voted on same-sex marriage. Some politicians may use these examples to suggest that, since intersex people can change their birth certificates as long as they pretend to be transsexual and claim a specific gender identity as male or female, they are allowed to marry whether they identify as male or female. Many people have no concept of what an intersex condition is and replace informed opinion with outdated reference to hermaphrodites, who are half male and half female and therefore need medical treatment before legal concessions.

How much progress has been made so far?
In some areas a great deal, but in others very little. A contributor to a news group, when told about the new legislation in Germany, responded with, "I want out of the EU and this is yet another reason to leave."

Finally, what do you think the future of intersex rights might be?
Hopefully a resolution to current anomalies affecting the lives of intersex people, a growing awareness in society of the existence of intersex people in their midst and an understanding of what truly is "normal". We're under no illusion that, unless we keep up the pressure, very little will be achieved in the short term, and the fact is that intersex people definitely don't want to wait any longer for what is their right.