LGBTQIA+ History Month – Celebrating the “I”
In 2013, whilst attending New York University School of Law Shana Knizhnik created the Notorious R.B.G. blog and t-shirts dedicated to the amazing Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020). Shana co-wrote the 2015 New York Times bestselling biographical book, Notorious R.B.G: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Irin Carmon. She is now a public defender and civil rights attorney.
In the October 2020 edition of Teen Vogue, Shana spoke publicly about being intersex. She was assigned female at birth, raised as a girl and her gender identity is as a woman. She also has XY chromosomes and has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). At 11 years old, her parents informed her that her ovaries had been removed when she was a baby, that she would not have monthly periods or biological children and would need to take hormonal supplements for the rest of her life. She wrote about her desire to be seen as a “feminine, straight, cisgender girl” whilst navigating her sexuality and trying to discover her true sense of self. She wrote that despite having come out as “queer” at college, she still did not wish for it to be publicly known that she was intersex.
Authenticity and being true to oneself is important to wellbeing and mental health. No one should have to publicly disclose their sex or explain their sex anatomy. However, by speaking up, Shana will have helped many other people feel that little less alone.
An “intersex” person is a person born with any of a range of biological sex characteristics that may not fit typical notions about male or female bodies. The range of biological deviation results in differences in genitalia, hormones, internal anatomy and/or chromosomes. It is for this reason that biological sex is said to be on a spectrum. The United Nations estimates that about 1.7% of people are born with intersex traits, which is about the same as the number of people born with red hair.
Intersex people can have any sexual orientation or gender identity. Some intersex people also identify as trans or nonbinary. Many intersex people identify as straight. Many do not realise that they are intersex until their teenage years. Sometimes, medical terms such as Differences of Sex Development (DSD), Disorders of Sex Development, Variations in Sex Characteristics (VSC) or Diverse Sex Development are used instead of intersex.
Sex verification testing in sports is now well publicised and can be devastating. Mokgadi Caster Semenya, the brilliant South African athlete identifies as a woman and has never publicly identified as intersex. Public reaction to the issue of whether her hormone levels were abnormal compared to other women must have been traumatic. India’s Pratima Gaonkaw committed suicide after public commentary on her sex verification test. Annet Negesa, the intersex Ugandan athlete had high levels of testosterone in her body. She underwent gonadectomy to remove internal testes in 2012 to enable her to compete in the woman’s category. Her career ended. She has since spoken of the misinformation she received about the surgical procedure. Removing gonads leaves a lifelong dependence on hormone replacement medications and permanent infertility.
Intersex activists and advocates
A number of prominent intersex activists and advocates have spoken out about the challenges faced by intersex embodied people and also on how to be better allies:
- Emma Dunn (she/they) is the Registration Executive at HM Land Registry and chair of a:gender, the cross-government network supporting trans and intersex staff across government. She was assigned female at birth, identifies as female and has Swyer syndrome. Part of her advocacy has been aimed at obtaining legal protection and policy changes for intersex people. She classes her birth sex as intersex and herself as Ipso gender (Ipso meaning “in place of”) as her gender identity matches the sex that she was assigned at birth in place of her actual sex, which is intersex.
- Valentino Vecchietti (they/them) is an intersex columnist in Diva (the only Lesbian lifestyle magazine in the UK) and a campaigner for the right to bodily integrity and self-determination.
- Sean Saifa Wall (he/ him) is a speaker, researcher and intersex rights advocate. He is black, trans and intersex as a result of AIS. He was assigned female at birth and underwent a gonadectomy as a child
- Hans Lindahl (she/ they) is a Queer intersex writer and digital creative. She also underwent a gonadectomy.
- Pidgeon Paganis (intersex activist and filmmaker) (all pronouns, prefers they/ them) identifies as an intersex non-binary person. Their medical records read “male pseudo-hermaphrodite 46 XY” and they were initially diagnosed with Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (PAIS) and informed that their XY body couldn’t fully utilize androgens and so they would develop mostly like a typical female person externally. On Twitter on 6th July 2020 they revealed that they don’t have PAIS but NR-5A1, that their body could utilize androgens and that their low estrogen levels explained a lot of health conditions since their mid-20s.
- Hanne Gaby Odiele (pronouns they/ them) is a Belgian model who is intersex as a result of AIS. They have spoken publicly about the trauma resulting from misinformation of firstly, at age 10 having gonadectomy to remove internal testes after being informed that they might develop gonadel cancer and secondly, at 18 of undergoing vaginal reconstructive surgery. They identified as an intersex woman in 2017 and as non-binary in 2019.
Ongoing issues include:
- The need to promote and develop non-binary ideas of sex and gender (a spectrum, rather than binary).
- The absence of any specific protection in the Equality Act 2010 for intersex people.
- Whether there should be an option to obtain a third sex marker (X or O) for non-binary and/or intersex persons on passports and birth certificates. Would the automatic or routine use of a third marker to signify intersex expose private information that someone does not wish to be in the public domain? What lessons can be learnt from the introduction of a third gender marker in 2013 in Germany?
- Work to prevent non-therapeutic medical interventions on intersex children until they are able to provide informed consent
- Raising awareness of intersex genital surgeries e.g. gonadectomy, clitorectomy, vaginoplasty
Some resources to increase intersex awareness or to be an intersex ally:
- Add your pronouns to your email signature, therefore telling people your gender identity thereby normalising the fact that people’s gender may not be obvious.
- Give intersex people visibility within your organisation (e.g. LGBTI)
- Sign a petition against genital normalizing surgeries on intersex babies
- @intersexJustice (Intersex Justice Project)
- @interACT_adv (legal advocates for intersex people)
- 4intersex.org (toolkit to help fight for intersex rights)
- Intersexion documentary
- Intersex stories (not surgeries)
- Pidgeon Pagonis ; https://twitter.com/Pidgejen/status/1280258005649494023
- Human rights watch
- Useful Twitter pages: @Pidgejen, @hiHelloHans, @Karkazis, @Georgiann_Davis
- Podcast: Intersex Rights with Hans Lindahl, Sean Saifa Wall, and Pidgeon Pagonis
- Garland, F and Travis, M (2018) Legislating Intersex Equality: Building the Resilience of Intersex People through Law. Legal Studies, 38 (4). pp. 587-606. ISSN 0261-3875
- Law Society “A chat to mark Intersex Awareness Day”
- Ponyboi, first narrative film created by and starring an out intersex artist; River Gallo is an intersex person of colour
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