I am a proud member of the intersex community, meaning I am one of the approximately 2 percent of people with physical sex characteristics transcending societal notions of what “male” and “female” typically look like. Often people like me are told we are unlovable, sometimes immediately after being born. Some doctors believe intersex traits such as differences in genital appearance are so shameful, they need to be immediately surgically corrected.
Although there is nothing physically wrong with us, a small subset of doctors continue to perform unnecessary surgeries on intersex bodies and genitalia in infancy. These surgeries are often unknown even to other members of the medical profession. Before we can speak or stand, they tell our parents they can perform surgery to “fix” us because of what they think our bodies should look like, not because of what will actually help us grow up to love ourselves and live happy, healthy lives.
Last week I celebrated a special kind of love on Valentine’s Day: the love of intersex people. On Thursday, the European Parliament passed a resolution “strongly condemn[ing] sex-normalizing treatments and surgery” and calling on member states within the European Union to pass legislation that protects the bodily integrity of intersex people “as soon as possible.” I am so proud of the intersex activists in Europe who fought on behalf of this vulnerable population of children so that future generations can be spared the harm we have undergone.
These procedures, including removal of parts of the clitoris and reproductive organs like gonads, and even the surgical creation of a vagina on a baby, can lead to harm. All of them can be safely delayed until an individual can participate meaningfully in the discussion about what they do—and don’t—want done to their body. Every single intersex-led organization in the world opposes non-consensual surgery, as well as other groups like Physicians for Human Rights, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization.
The standard the European Parliament sets with the resolution is exactly what is put forward in SB 201, a new California bill brought by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth, the ACLU of Northern California, and Equality California. That bill ensures that children born in California with variations in their sex characteristics—who are often called intersex—will have autonomy over their bodies and that these harmful interventions will be postponed until the person can engage in decisions around their own medical care. The world is listening, and taking action—we have the chance to be the first state in the US to prohibit what has been called a form of torture by the United Nations. I urge you to join us in supporting intersex human rights in California and beyond.
Kimberly Zieselman is executive director of interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth.