We have some odd taboos about genitalia in North America. We insist they’re covered up, yet at the same time insist they only appear in certain ways. That’s a bit of a problem, for some.
At birth, M.C.’s external genitalia included a 2-centimeter penis, a small vaginal opening, an undescended testicle on the left side, both ovarian and testicular tissue on the right side, and blood testosterone levels deemed normal for male babies of the same age. The technical name for this condition is “ovotesticular disorder of sexual differentiation.” Some of M.C.’s medical records used the more archaic term: “true hermaphroditism.”
Roughly 1 in every 2,000 babies in the U.S. are born, like M.C., with a range of traits that fall somewhere along the wide spectrum between male and female. Some doctors argue that the number of these so-called intersex babies is even higher — as many as 1 in 100 — depending on what biological markers are used to draw the line where nature hasn’t.
And as is custom
ary, the doctors did a little snip-snip
out the non-conforming bits
turning M.C.’s body
into a form we’d associate with “girl.” For thousands of newborns, that would be the end of it.
Now M.C. is a 10-year-old boy. (And because M.C. identifies as male, this article will refer to him with male pronouns.) As he begins the anguish of adolescence, Pam and her husband, Mark, are waging a landmark lawsuit against the hospitals and state guardians who decided to put their son through sex-assignment surgery.
The trial, slated for November, is the first public lawsuit to come out of a long-running scientific debate: Should intersex babies be operated on to make them “boys” and “girls”?
This is non-consensual surgery that forces people to conform to society’s standards, a social justice near-slam-dunk. The only complication is that testicular tissue in ovotestes is a cancer risk. That might be worth a non-consensual snip, but then again no doctor can force you to submit to cancer treatment without your consent. It’s an ethical gray area, though in the States the current trend is forced treatment for children.
Complications aside, there’s almost nothing about intersex in social justice circles.
Our survey found that the approach to intersex issues taking place in Women’s Studies
classrooms is severely limited, despite instructors’ good intentions. For example, only four out of 24
respondents use materials written or produced by known intersex people, despite the fact these
materials have become widely available in the last few years.
Nor is it on the public’s radar, thanks to shame and stigma.
I have learned later in my life that there were actually other intersex individuals that I came into contact with, but didn’t know it until much later. I would’ve loved to know that, would’ve loved to have been able to share and talk and discuss and process stuff. But I didn’t. Part of this is because, as we have learned from shared personal experiences, those people who have been shuttled through the medical stuff – and that is the vast majority of us – have it ingrained in them that this isn’t stuff you talk about, and/or are traumatized by these (non-consenual) experiences and can’t talk about them.
I really think this is the next big topic in social justice. Even if I’m wrong, it’s a discussion we desperately need.