For a long time, most intersex people thought of their physical differences as something akin to a disease. Indeed, rather than using the label “intersex,” most physicians and many parents still prefer to talk about “disorders of sex development” — in other words, problems for doctors to fix. In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics went so far as to declare the birth of an intersex child a “social emergency.” (Since then, the AAP has grown more circumspect. “DSD may carry a stigma,” states a position paper adopted in 2006.)
But now activists are turning that argument around: Instead of talking about intersex people as medical subjects, they are speaking the language of identity, human rights and pride. They want doctors, parents and society at large to take a less rigid approach to sexual identity — and especially to reconsider the assumption that, to identify as a man or a woman, a person needs the gonads, genitals and chromosomes to match. “There is a much bigger focus now on intersex identity politics — on letting the world know that we are intersex people, as opposed to people with medical conditions,” says longtime activist Hida Viloria, a chair of the Organization Intersex International and author of a new memoir, “Born Both.” To Viloria, surgeries that aim to make children more conventionally male or female are “a gendercide, an institutional effort to erase us from society.”
There have been, in recent years, signs that the activists are making progress. In 2011, the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture released a statement critical of nonconsensual intersex surgeries; two years later, the panel went further, declaring that the surgeries often “arguably meet the criteria for torture.” […]
These developments are in step with the larger disability rights movement, which argues for replacing assumptions of “bad-difference” with acceptance of “mere-difference,” in the terminology of philosopher Elizabeth Barnes. And they likewise echo the gay and transgender rights movements, which have risen to the surface of American politics and culture over the past generation. Now, in an era when society has proved open to revisiting other identities that were once considered shameful or taboo, is the intersex community finally on the brink of its own revolutionary moment — one that could transform what was a disorder into just another way for a person to be?
ICYMI, the Washington Post recently published a prominent feature story about the intersex rights movement and the folks leading it. Intersex pals, I would love to hear from you about this: what did you make of the story? Was it fair and thorough? What would you have liked to see changed or added?