Three Intersex activists of color spoke on Wednesday, Oct. 25 at the Center on Halsted, announcing that their request to end genital surgeries on intersex children was becoming a demand.
Intersex people are born with reproductive or sexual systems that don't easily fit traditional categories of male or female, and they number 0.5-1.7 percent of the population. That's the same percentage of people who are redheads, said activist Pidgeon Pagonis. But since the advent of gender reassignment surgeries in the 1950s, intersex babies were, and often are, subjected to invasive surgeries to make their bodies confirm to male or female norms.
For intersex activist Sean Saifa Wall, the violence that doctors do to intersex bodies is connected to and sanctioned by the state. When Wall was 13, his doctor told his mother that Wall's undescended testes could cancerous and needed to be removed. His mother, lacking what she needed to make an informed decision, gave consent. As a result of the surgery, Wall would be dependent on regular hormone injections to prevent early-onset osteoporosis for the rest of his life.
"Trump has decided to gut the Affordable Care Act," said Wall. "And I'm one of those people that fall in the Medicaid gap. I'm a working artist based in Atlanta. And so essentially, without medical care, I don't get access to hormones. And without hormones, I'm at risk for early onset osteoporosis. A decision that [Trump] is making is directly effecting my life. To deny people health care is a human rights violation, and it's a form of state violence."
"We're against medically unnecessarily surgeries," Wall continued. "These surgeries have traditionally been done to make sex - to make biological sex - align with societal norms of gender. And it's always for the comfort of the parents and for the doctors, but not for the patient."
The discussion was tied to Thursday's Intersex Awareness Day protest at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, which continues to promote invasive genital surgeries on infants with intersex characteristics.
Lynnell Stephani Long suffered under those same policies. Long's body does not naturally produce male or female hormones, and beginning at the age of 8, Long was treated as a "guinea pig" at the University of Chicago Hospital. The 10 years she spent in and out of that hospital, sometimes staying for months at a time, left Long with nightmares and PTSD from being treated like an experiment. "You've seen those pictures of [naked] kids spread like this with their eyes blacked out? One of those is me."
"This is what the doctors told me: 'Don't you want to be a better man? Don't you want to be a real man?'… It wasn't about what I wanted; it was what my mom wanted, what the doctors wanted." The doctors started giving Long testosterone to "make me into a boy," but all it did was make her sick.
"This has been happening since the 1950s, and it's in medical textbooks telling them to treat us how they do," said Pagonis. "They know what intersex is. They can list you 26 variations and tell you what the phenotype is and go on and on. But they will not tell you that we have human rights. They'll tell you that only females exist and only males exist, and what we need to do is use our surgical technology to push this body into a female or male thing because we don't believe that this person has human rights and bodily autonomy."
The event's approximately 35 attendees were enthusiastic in their support for the speakers. Meme Salazar Rodriguez, an attendee whose passion for intersex justice inspired them to pursue medicine, said, "Some people shouldn't be doctors. If you are going to treat humans like machines, go study computers or robotics. Honestly, there should be a bigger component of sociology in med school and pre-med programs."
The Center on Halsted hosted the event. "The intersex community is a fairly misunderstood community," said Vanessa Sheridan, Director of Trans Relations and Community Engagement at the Center. "I felt like it was important for us as an organization to create an opportunity for the intersex community to come in and share information about their situation, about people who are intersex, and about some of the issues and concerns surrounding that community. And I think tonight we were able to provide a forum for that to happen."
In addition to an end to medically unnecessary surgeries, intersex activists want intersex children to be raised with a gender, but with the understanding that they may change their sex and gender identity one day. They also ask that intersex people be supported in accessing hormone treatment and surgery if they so choose.