5 lessons to understand what it means to be an intersex person, what challenges they face, and how their rights are violated
By Karin Santi | Regional Leader, HIV, Health and Development
Mariel Ortega |Intersex Research Consultant UNDP in Latin America and the Caribbean
Intersex is a term used to describe people whose sexual anatomy does not conform to what is typically considered a “female” or “male” body. In fact, intersex is a completely natural body variation in humans, that in some cases may not even be visible at birth but appear during puberty or even into adulthood.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, intersex people tend to be discriminated against, excluded, subjected to unnecessary medical procedures, violence, and are often rendered invisible. Recent efforts of the regional intersex human rights movement highlighted these challenges in International fora. As a result, in March of this year, the first Latin American Regional Conference on Intersex People published the Statement of San José de Costa Rica, calling on States to
“immediately prohibit any practice that modifies a person’s sexual characteristics without irrefutable medical reasons and the full and informed consent of the person affected”.
Furthermore, the Conference adhered unanimously to the Declaration of the Third International Intersex Forum held in Malta in 2013.
It is important to remember:
1. There is not a single intersex corporeality. There are more than 40 intersex variations, which mistakenly tend to be addressed as “pathologies”, giving way to the serious human rights violations faced by intersex people from an early age, motivated by the intention of “correcting” their bodies. Discrimination transcends the medical field, and is deeply rooted in society, and may include abandonment and the stigmatization by families.
2. There is a widespread confusion about sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex people. Intersex status is exclusively related to biological characteristics and is independent of sexual orientation or gender identity. Therefore, an intersex person may be heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual. They may also identify as a woman, man, gender non-conforming, and/or non-binary, among other gender identities.
3. Global and regional human rights agencies have documented violations related to the treatments many intersex people receive from birth and throughout their lives, such as medical interventions without informed consent (including in infancy), barriers in accessing medical records and struggle to get legal recognition in public registries. It is common that medical staff informs families of newly born intersex children that a surgical intervention is required to “adapt” the body to what medically and socially is understood as the norm. Very often these interventions are performed on perfectly healthy children to satisfy ambiguous “aesthetic” concepts rather than address medical needs. Not infrequently families do not receive the full importation, or do not understand, the implications of such surgeries and procedures.
4. Unwanted and often unnecessary medical procedures violate the human rights of intersex people and leave an indelible mark on their lives. According to testimonies of various intersex people, the nature of these interventions involves multiple surgeries performed at different stages of their lives, resulting in chronic pain and health problems.
5. The invasive procedures described above have been condemned and classified as practices of child genital mutilation. The treatment of intersex status as an “illness” is a serious problem, present in many different States of Latin America and the Caribbean. That leads to much of the structural discrimination faced by intersex people. Often times as they get older, intersex people are prevented from changing their identity documents after realizing their gender identity does not correspond to the arbitrary assignment that was made at birth.
There is a chronic lack of official information on the rights and inclusion of intersex people in Caribbean countries, which directly affects the absence of public policies and/or regulatory frameworks that protect them when their rights are violated. The “Being LGBTI in the Caribbean” project led by UNDP and supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is currently developing research on the situation of intersex people in Jamaica, Barbados, Dominican Republic and Haiti. The initiative seeks to document and give visibility to the daily situations faced by intersex people in these countries, with a view to identify gaps and make recommendations to Governments on how to apply a comprehensive approach to this subject.