Taylor Lianne Chandler is an intersex woman who underwent unnecessary surgery when she was a child. She was assigned male at birth but had a body that did not conform to the standards of what most expect male bodies to look like. The procedures were supposed to "correct" Chandler, but there was nothing wrong with her in the first place.
Intersex children are often forced by their parents or physicians to undergo procedures that they don't understand or consent to. Chandler described the trauma of a childhood spent wondering why she needed so many surgeries, and the "internal confusion" the experience caused her. "I was made to feel like something was wrong with me and this was my fault," Chandler told Broadly. Later in her life, Chandler chose to undo what was done to her, but describes it as "a nightmare of surgeries to go backwards."
Mo Cortez had a similarly confusing and traumatizing childhood. Doctors told his mother to raise him as a girl, and she did—even though Cortez always knew he wasn't. It wasn't until Cortez was five years old and traveled to Dallas to receive what he was told were "normalization" surgeries that he started feeling like something was wrong. "The day of the surgery, when I woke up and lifted up the covers as a 5-year-old, and seeing the stitches and the big red X—that told me right away that my body as its natural self was a freak and it needed to be corrected," he told Broadly. Like Chandler, he had to find his own path years after being so disconnected from his body.
A joint report from Human Rights Watch and intersex activist organization InterACT outlines the devastating effects that unnecessary surgery has on intersex children, and calls for a ban on the shockingly prevalent practice. The report estimates that nearly 2% of babies are intersex and "around 1 in 2,000 babies is different enough that doctors may recommend surgical intervention to make the body appear more" like stereotypical, binaristic models of male and female bodies.
A child may be born with the external sex characteristics of a female baby, yet have undescended gonads (so-called male genitalia). Because this combination of body parts is considered contradictory and socially problematic, invasive procedures are performed to "correct" and "normalize" children who are perfectly healthy. "My vagina was [surgically] closed and I was assigned male at birth," Chandler says. Until she was three, Chandler was "forced" to live as a boy. But, she says, "As soon as I could walk and talk I identified female."
"As a teenager I was forced onto a double mastectomy."
Her youth was a series of surgeries that attempted to revise her body. She was reassigned female as a minor and had a legal name change. "In my early twenties I had multiple surgeries and continued complications from surgeries to be corrected to anatomically female only," she said.
Koomah was spared the knife as as a child—but their childhood was tainted by a medical establishment that did not accept her body for what it was. "I was subjected to repeated genital examinations (often while strapped to a medical table and sometimes while sedated) and genital medical photography," they told Broadly. "As a teenager I was forced onto a double mastectomy."
"Intersex children may have lifetime psychological effects," Koomah says. "Some research has found that intersex children who are subjected to repeated genital examinations and medical photography of their bodies have similar emotional and psychological trauma to survivors of childhood sexual abuse."
A mounting body of research, professional opinions—and the strong voices of intersex people like Chandler—make clear that unnecessary corrective surgeries on intersex children can have devastating effects on their lives. Koomah believes that these "surgeries are inherently sexist," explaining that physicians often consider the future sexual desirability of one's genitalia when deciding whether or not to perform surgery. "The surgical procedures are done out of a fear of the non-binary; fear of non-binary bodies and non-binary genders," they explain. "The threat of childhood teasing seems far less traumatic than the trauma and repeated medical abuses many intersex people face."
"There is scar tissue, complications, difficulties peeing," Chandler said, describing just some of the physical effects she still carries after years of surgeries. Beyond that, there is a league of psychological troubles and social stigma to contend with. "As an adult I chose not to share my past," Chandler explained. She lived with a secret that made her feel less significant than other people. It wasn't until tabloids outed Chandler following her alleged relationship with Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps that she was forced to publicly confront what happened to her. "When I was outed by the tabloids I wanted to die."
"They have no way of knowing how that child identifies at birth."
Activists and intersex people want these surgeries to stop—to allow a broader understanding of the human body when it comes to sex. "If you don't fit conveniently into [binary gender] roles, [doctors] feel this need to force genital mutilation, to force you to fit before you have a voice," Chandler said. "It's disgusting and wrong.
"They have no way of knowing how that child identifies at birth," she explained. "It's better to leave everything alone and let the child decide if they are comfortable remaining intersex or they prefer one gender over another… I was born intersex."
"Intersex bodies are natural variations; our bodies deserve respect not mutilation," Koomah said. "My body and uniquely intersex genitals are awesome."
In a video for Human Rights Watch, intersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis shared the devastation of being operated on without consent: "I wish my parents would have known that I would grow up and not wanted this to have happened to me," they said.