Today is Intersex Awareness Day, which falls less than a week after the federal administration called for a federal level biological definition of gender. This is not only impossible, it will harm lives of intersex and trans people. Much is already being said about the impact on trans people. As a trans person myself, I appreciate much of the work being done by local and national organizations.
At the same time, I find it important to recognize trans people are not the only people under attack. The lives of intersex people would also be effected by such a measure. In fact, when it comes to defining gender along biological lines, intersex people have already demonstrated not only is such a thing not possible, trying to do so will harm lives.
According to the Intersex Society of North America, “Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” Intersex people can include people born with ambiguous internal or external genitalia, genitalia which does not conform to normative expectations of size or shape, or having diverse chromosomal compositions. Some of these conditions are not evident at birth and may not manifest or be recognized until puberty or when issues surrounding fertility arise.
In August 2018, California became the first state to formerly condemn corrective surgery performed on intersex children. These surgeries, primarily cosmetic in nature, date back to the 1930s when urologists working at university hospitals, such as Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, sought to help address the needs of intersex adults with physical problems of genital function. Many of these early surgical advances helped develop the foundational techniques used in gender conforming surgeries for trans people.
During the 1950s and 1960s, advances in pediatric surgery and pediatric urology allowed doctors to perform these corrective surgeries on infants and young children. No longer where intersex corrective surgeries primary done to assist adults who could vocalize concerns about their bodies and consent to having invasive surgeries performed, but on newborns without say and often times even without parental knowledge.
In the decades following, advocacy groups formed to speak out against this practice, and achieved amazing victories in June of 2017 when three former U.S. Surgeons General, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, Dr. David Satcher, and Dr. Richard Carmona spoke out against the practice, and again, earlier this year, when the California State Legislature approved a resolution to officially condemn unnecessary surgeries on intersex children.
So, how would an immutable, biological basis for gender even begin to be defined? Appearance at birth? That is the current standard, and we’ve seen how harmful it can be when applying to a child is born with ambiguous genitalia. We should never go back to performing unnecessary and harmful surgeries on infants to make sure their bodies conform to our laws and regulations.
How about sex chromosomes then? Using this standard creates a host of problems for a variety of individuals. For example, people with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome people have XY sex chromosomes but, because of an inability to process testosterone, they appear female at birth. Do they get classified them as whatever gender we associate people with XY chromosomes to have even if it puts them at risk for harassment and violence?
People with Klinefelter Syndrome would also fall outside the administration’s proposed narrow, biological definition of gender, as they are born with an XXY sex chromosome composition. Do they get a third gender, something the administration has tried to claim does not exist?
And since we do not, by default, perform chromosome tests at birth, what if a person is discovered to have this chromosomal difference later in life? Do we retroactively change their gender markers on all their identification?
Sex and gender are not the same thing. Making any attempt to codify a definition of gender into law will inevitably lead to even greater experiences of stigma and harm for intersex people.