Making Intersex Visible - The Role of the United Nations

The UN is leading a global campaign to stamp out human rights violations against intersex people and achieve equality. The first step for the UN is to promote the visibility of intersex people. The question remains how equality for intersex people can be achieved in a world where intersex currently exists between the binary of female and male. Is it not binaries such as these that must first be tackled before equality can be taken seriously?

Zu sehen sind Briefmarken in Nahaufnahme. Auf der Briefmarke sind zwei nicht einem Geschlecht zuzuordende Personen zu erkennen, die sich von unten nach oben anschauen und am Kopf berühren.
Six new stamps were created to promote the UN Free & Equal Campaign for LGBT equality. With intersex being the last on the LGBTI list it is often left out and forgotten. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

In 2013, the United Nations Free & Equal organisation was formed with an aim to promote equal rights and fair treatment of LGBTI people. Although LGBTI people should not be seen as a homogeneous group, they are often understood as a community as they share common oppressions and human rights violations. These include attempts to “normalise” them in line with already existing strict binary standards, such as those of gender and sex. For intersex people, medical interventions such as surgeries are commonly carried out without their permission and a lifetime of discrimination begins from the moment they are born.

Conceptualisations of gender and sex must first be challenged and tackled in order to begin a process against discrimination and human rights violations. For example, a bill has recently been passed in the German Parliament which allows same-sex marriage in Germany. This is a welcomed decision in the fight for equality. However, for those who identify as a third gender/sex or are currently identified as blank on their birth certificates, marriage remains an institution which is inaccessible. Thus, achieving equality within a binary system is not necessarily achieving equality for all. Education on matters of our bodies and identities must be widened and discourses surrounding subjects such as intersex must be made visible. Although in many cultures and societies across the globe there has been a history of fluid understandings of gender, these fluidities have been restricted through European colonialism.

The United Nations Free & Equal

Raising awareness and visibility of intersex people to the general population is a vital step towards changing policies and attitudes towards gender/sex in general. The UN must, however, begin this campaign leading by example. With job application forms, from the UN itself, giving options of only male or female in the personal history section, this campaign is, currently, somewhat contradictory. The changing of these categories on forms to include a third option or perhaps even to exclude the category of gender/sex altogether in forms seems simple to achieve. Instead, there is still a clear promotion of gender/sex inequality with so many people made invisible by these seemingly benign categorical decisions.

LGBT is a term used as a political representation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. It is not a fixed group of people. Over the years, more groups have been added to LGBT with some using the initials LGBTQIA+.

The difference between gender and sex is highly debated with the most simplified explanation being that sex refers to the biological features of a person and gender refers to social factors such as a persons role in society. Click for more information...

Ein weißes Blatt Papier mit einem blauen Kreuz und einem roten Stern übereinandergelegt, sodass es aussieht wie zwei Pfeile die sich begegnen. Darunter der Schriftzug HeForShe.
Attempts to change the discourse on gender equality continue to reify binary notions of gender and reproduce the invisibility of intersex people. (UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz)

The Importance of Language

Daily life for intersex people can be challenging from a very young age, with problems of bullying occurring, particularly during puberty, due to a general lack of understanding of intersex. Discrimination is strife for intersex people when trying to access jobs, housing and so on. We live in a world of filling out forms, using paperwork and passports to get from one place to another, and of gendered interpellations - Mister, Misses, Miss, He, She, Her, Him. These words are used on a daily basis with variations of the same words across languages.

There is, however, the possibility in some languages to use gender neutral interpellations. For example, in English they is currently used to refer to a person who identifies as gender non-binary. Although this term is becoming more common, it is still very far from being generally accepted. As English is one of the UN official languages, this allows for the possibility of using this term within international documents, policies, and so forth. Thus far, even with gender neutral terms becoming more visible in some languages, policies and laws are even further behind with identification documents such as passports stating only female or male in most countries.

A little ray of hope came in 2013 when Germany became the first country in Europe, and one of the first countries in the world, to give parents of babies who are born intersex the choice to not register them as male or female but to choose a third box instead. This box, however, is blank, which is symbolic of a lack of placement. With countries such as Germany bringing a conversation about intersex to the fore by implementing new laws and policies to tackle the issue of assumed binary sexes, it appears we are on the right track to fight against gender/sex discrimination. However, the blank box option in Germany is only a temporary solution with parents or the intersex person themselves expected to choose a sex out of the binary female/male at a later date.

On the 1st June 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued their second report on human rights violations against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. This report details human rights abuses and recent governmental advances in new anti-discrimination and hate crime laws. It also includes protection of intersex children, amongst other things. However, these new laws only go so far. A call for a third gender option to be made available on a more permanent basis in Germany was rejected by the high court as recently as 2016. Thus, it is clear that we are still standing at the starting line in the fight for intersex to be understood as something other than a “disorder”, “disease”, or “defect” which must still be rectified at a later date so that it fits into the binary system which has come to be thought of as “natural”. The pathologising and medicalisation of intersex must be tackled more rigorously by the UN.

In einem großen holzvertäfelten Raum steht eine Menge an Menschen in einer Reihe nebeneinander. In der Mitte steht der ehemalige Generalsekretär Ban Ki-Moon. Fast alle lächeln freundlich in die Kamera.
The rights of LGBTI are also discussed as part of the SDGs, here in a high level LGBTI Core Group Event with the goal of "Leaving No One Behind: Equality & Inclusion in the Post 2015 Development Agenda". (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

It is important to note that although there are many intersex people who want the option of a third gender/sex to be made available, there are many intersex people who do identify themselves as either female or male. Thus, a third gender/sex option should be made available alongside the option of choosing female or male as one’s gender/sex. Making a third gender/sex option available on birth certificates, as well as passports and other important documents is a necessary step which the UN should recommend.

Changing Discourses on Unwarranted Medical Interventions

The UN’s global campaign against discrimination and human rights violations of intersex people tackles the use of medical interventions in cases of so-called correctional procedures which intersex people face without their permission. Medical interventions are still rushed and often assumed to be a medical emergency in the majority of countries where a baby's sex must be decided and performed medically within the first 24 hours of the baby being born. Although this is changing due to campaigns such as those implemented by the UN, it is still common to perform these medical procedures in rushed decisions by doctors and medical staff who are poorly educated on these matters. Doctors and medical staff need greater education on these matters and stricter laws prohibiting rushed surgery decisions must be implemented. The UN has begun to promote these rectifications. Irreversible sex assignment surgeries which are so often performed for reasons that are entirely cosmetic and aesthetic have serious implications of life long mental health issues as well as physical health problems. The UN's global campaign raising awareness of these issues and campaigning to better the education surrounding this topic is a welcomed start to preventing these surgeries and causing a lifetime of unnecessary pain and difficulties for an intersex person.

Teri Shardlow

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