Intersex Awareness Day aims to bring visibility to intersex people and the issues they may face, including its stigma. Today marks the first public demonstration by intersex people, since the first one held twenty years ago, held on 26th October, 1996.
The word “intersex” is an umbrella term used for people who feel that they don’t fit into the binary notions of male and female gender. Biological sex is a combination of many factors, including sex chromosomes, hormones and genetalia. The sexual binary says that babies born with XY chromosomes, plenty of testosterone and a penis are male, and people with XX chromosomes, oestrogen and a vagina are female. There’s no reason why all of these things should line up so neatly though, and about 1 in 2000 individuals have a different combination – they are known as intersex. Sometimes this isn’t noticeable at birth, but becomes apparent during puberty, or later in adult life. It is entirely separate from sexual orientation and gender identity, and relates only to biological sex characteristics.
Quite often, children and babies are given a ‘reassignment’ surgery to make their anatomy fit to an expectation of either male or female. Many intersex persons take issue with this, as coercively assigning someone a sex makes it appear as though being intersex itself is a problem, or abnormal. These surgeries can cause infertility, incontinence, life-long pain and as well as mental suffering. The social implications of the removal of intersex people from our society result in much shame and lack of education around being intersex.
The aim of Intersex Awareness Day is to bring attention to the fact intersex people do exist, and that is not something to be ashamed of, and is a sex in its own right. Demonstrations are done to end shame, secrecy, and unwanted cosmetic genital surgery done to children. The discrimination held against intersex people appears in everyday life; in the work place, at schools etc. Often intersex people are forced to “choose” a sex they wish to “pass” as, in order to please others in gendered situations, such as public restrooms and changing rooms. Intersex athletes have been disqualified from sports competitions on the basis of being intersex, with the thought that this could either somehow help them, or simply because they don’t fit in with the binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’.
The day is important because it brings key awareness to people that actually exist. Intersex people are real, and the day ensures that their identity is valid and acknowledged. With less stigma around being intersex, intersex people will be able to move freely and ‘out’ without fear. You can help by being mindful; be aware that these people exist and make yourself a known ally, a person people do not need to be afraid to come out to. You can help raise awareness by a simple Facebook post, or Tweet, acknowledging the day and its importance. Intersex people make up around 1.7% of the population, which is around the same as having red hair. You may know someone who is intersex, and may not know. To put it simply, it shouldn’t and doesn’t make a difference. This is why it is incredibly important for the public to acknowledge the day.
The campaign is moving gradually forward; in 2013 Australia introduced legislation that included intersex status as a prohibited ground of discrimination. Malta, in 2015, adopted the Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sex Characteristics Act, the first law to prohibit surgery and treatment of sex characteristics of minors without informed consent.
“Intersex characteristics can present in all sorts of ways, and sometimes they change the way that intersex people are perceived. While there are some conditions which enable an intersex person to pass as a certain binary sex up until the point they become intimate with someone, some lead to girls growing bears or having their voice break, boys developing breasts, or people having androgynous characteristics from birth. Intersex Awareness is as much about being aware of how to be respectful of these individuals as it is drawing attention to the conditions they have. Be careful with your language and remember that not all girls have periods, bearded ladies aren’t a funny novelty, and that genitalia comes in different shapes and sizes – just some are more different than others!” – An Intersex Student
So remember 26th October, we celebrate Intersex Day to raise awareness and attempt to defeat the stigma that surrounds it.