In honor of Intersex Awareness Day, intersex writer and activist Hida Viloria, author of Born Both: An Intersex Life and founding director of the Intersex Campaign for Equality, responds to the Trump administration’s memo.
Since the Trump administration’s memo concerning the definition of sex and gender was leaked by The New York Times, I’ve experienced sadness, rage, and bewilderment. I’m sad and angered for the transgender community, particularly those in the military and young trans students attempting to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. As an intersex person, I’m also astounded by the continued erasure of intersex people, even within a discussion of erasure that directly impacts us. What better day to address this than today, Intersex Awareness Day, observed annually on October 26 to commemorate the date of the first protest against intersex surgery in 1996 at Boston Children’s Hospital.
The memo’s proposed plan could create a situation wherein Americans known or suspected of being trans could be forced to undergo “genetic testing.” Officials could use this information to alter legal gender markers for members of the trans community, aligning these designations not with their true gender identity, but with the sex associated with their chromosomes (with “XX” equaling female and “XY” equaling male). To anyone with a heart, or anyone who knows a trans person who has been living authentically as their true gender identity, this situation sounds absolutely horrific.
It also sounds eerily familiar to those of us aware of the fact that genetic testing for gender “verification” has been used against intersex women for decades. The practice began in 1968, when the International Olympic Committee started performing mandatory genetic tests on all female athletes, and disqualifying intersex women with typically male XY chromosomes. More than 50 years later, the practice still continues on a case-by-case basis “upon suspicion.”
If both of these scenarios sound like witch hunts, it’s because they are. They’re systemic efforts to flush out and penalize those of us who challenge our society’s historically enforced sex and gender norms.
The leaked memo states that gender should be defined by genitals at birth and/or chromosomes, both notions that negate the lived reality of transgender people. It also goes on to specify that sex at birth can only be male or female. This denies the very existence of intersex people, as we are not, by scientific definition, born with typically male or female bodies.
Sadly, for days, most of the many posts and articles I have read about the memo, even on LGBTQ media outlets, have only referenced erasure as it pertains to the transgender community. I’m used to being left out of the conversation, as all intersex people are, so much so that I’m very aware of, and grateful to, the LGBTQ allies who do work to include us. But it’s striking to see how often that doesn’t happen, even when examining issues that are an integral part of our experience. And this has to change.
Intersex people have been subjected to the literal, surgical erasure of our bodies since the 1950s, with the intersex movement and community growing out of efforts to end this violence. We’ve seen enormous progress towards this goal in the last several years. On Intersex Awareness Day in 2015, Intersex Campaign for Equality Associate Director Dana Zzyym, my friend and colleague, filed a groundbreaking lawsuit to be accurately acknowledged as neither male nor female, but intersex and non-binary, on their passport. In December 2016, New York City issued the first intersex birth certificate in United States history to intersex Californian Sara Kelly Keenan, also the state’s first legally non-binary citizen. I’m proud to say that I received the second intersex birth certificate the following year.
A few months later, three former Surgeon Generals spoke out in favor of letting intersex people decide for ourselves, when we are old enough, who we want to be, how we want to identify, and if we want to make any changes to our bodies or just leave them as they are. Doctors sometimes say that they’ve heard stories about people born with ambiguous genitalia who were left as they were born and are unhappy about it, but “have no data” about cases to the contrary.
In light of today’s observance and so many unfounded claims to the contrary, here’s some a fact: There are also stories about people who feel that being allowed to keep the genitals they were born with is one of the best things that happened to them. Some are even publicly available. Mine is one of them. I have androgynous genitals and, contrary to popular opinion, I’m happy about it. I know the world doesn’t exactly frame them in a positive light, to put it very mildly, but I chose early on to reject anti-intersex, or inter-phobic, views which say I should be ashamed of my body—just as years before I learned to reject racist views that shamed me as a Spanish-speaking Latinx child of immigrants, and then homophobic views within my own family that shamed me as a queer person.
This August, California passed SCR-110, the first U.S. resolution calling on medical providers to end the practice of performing medically unnecessary operations on intersex babies. Intersex people everywhere celebrated, but Trump’s memo threatens to strip all this progress away. The inaccurate claims that humans are only born male or female seek to invalidate the equal recognition of our sex as intersex, which in turn validates efforts to alter intersex babies to fit society’s prescribed gender norms.
As most of us are aware, intersex people do not seem to be the primary, intended target of Trump’s memo, but rather collateral damage of its transphobic agenda. We’re evidence to the fact that what we perceive as someone’s gender does not always match their biology. In order to successfully uphold the transphobic view that gender is determined solely by one’s sex traits at birth, the Trump administration has effectively denied the very real existence of intersex people.
There are those among us whose bodies appear to all as women’s, but who were born with XY chromosomes and internal testes. However, society has had no problem assigning these babies female and accepting them as such, because despite their typically male chromosomes and gonads, they look like women to the world. This strikes down transphobic claims that gender must match chromosomes or biology. There are also intersex people who have chromosomal variations like XXY, XO, and more, which further dispels the notion that everyone is born with either XX or XY chromosomes, and is “really” either female or male.
Plus, a society which acknowledges that humans come in three rather than two, “opposite” sexes, would view sexual orientation differently. After all, what is “straight” or “gay” for a person who is neither male nor female? We are evidence to the fact that sexuality, as well as sex and gender, is inherently complex. You’d think this would make including intersex people a top priority for everyone who aims to dismantle homophobia, transphobia, and bias against gender non-conforming people. But this has not been the case.
As a member of multiple communities represented in the LGBTQIA spectrum, seeing the intersex “I” so often omitted from the acronym is difficult for me. But the disconnect has become downright alarming in light of Trump’s memo. I was a lesbian for many years before realizing that I’m non-binary, intersex, and more accurately defined as queer, so I know that homophobia is based on the same concept which fuels inter-phobia: the idea that people who aren’t “real” men or “real” women are inferior.
When we as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans, and gender non-conforming people exclude intersex people from our community, or relegate them to the bottom of our heap, we’re mimicking the same value system as the homophobes and transphobes who seek to hurt us. Notice they are at this very moment trying to exclude intersex people entirely, right out of the existence, specifically because doing so makes it easier to harm trans people.
If we ever hope to the put an end to the ideologies that enabled this recent display of bias against both the trans and intersex communities, then we need to establish once and for all that the idea that all humans are either male or female is a myth. For when we allow basic truths—such as the fact that humans are born male, female, and intersex, and always have been—to be overlooked, we perpetuate the toxic denial of scientific reality. So I’m asking you, my queer community, to discard this dangerous mentality. Please support intersex inclusion this Intersex Awareness Day by actively including us in the LGBTQIA community, and by sharing resources and projects like Intersex Quarterly, the first online journal of intersex perspectives.