Who needs another minority?

// 8 September 2011

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all_different_all_equal.jpg slogan

Minority rights are under attack as never before – mostly under cover of George Osborne’s grand “let’s save the economy project”. Those with privilege and agenda are looking to roll back as many of the hard won gains of the last fifty years as they can.

So this might not be an ideal time to raise the issue of how we treat a wider range of minorities, especially groups not even recognised formally as such by the political classes, and who consequently have no legal protections whatsoever. But I’ll take my chances: rights are not something to be bargained over, especially where their absence is leading to serious abuse and injustice.

Chances are you have some broad sense of what is meant by intersex. Historically, you would be categorised as such when you have “clearly ambiguous genitals”. This, in turn, may be because your genetic/chromosomal make-up does not match either of the two simple groupings – XY or XX – used by biologists to assign gender, or due to epigenetic factors such as pollution, radiation, or hormone levels in the womb during gestation.

Simpler is to say that intersex people have external sexual characteristics or internal reproductive systems that differ from what is usually expected of either men or women. More broadly, the Organisation Internationale des Intersexes (OII) argue that intersex includes anyone who is “of intermediate sex, somewhere between standard male or female or not having a body that meets the norms for “standard” male or female”.

So, beyond adding yet another letter to the ever-increasing rainbow family that now becomes LGBTI, does it matter? Unfortunately, yes.

First, because the medical profession has traditionally seen intersex people as problematic: as “deficient” members of the two “proper” genders, as opposed to individuals in their own right. Therefore they have not counted. Quite literally: there are no reliable estimates for the world’s possibly quite large intersex population because most medical professionals have defined the group away, and do not record intersex at birth.

That has a serious knock-on effect of its own: because some genetic conditions that create intersex also come with illness, or predisposition to illness. And not identifying someone as intersex may frequently mean not treating them until they become very ill indeed.

Or, since most medical authorities simply don’t recognize intersex, the only way to obtain access to sometimes life-saving hormonal treatments is through self-medication or lying: in Australia, for instance, the main legitimate route for an intersex individual to obtain hormone treatment is by self-declaring as a “potential sex offender”.

Second, as “deficient” men or women, the medical profession has a long history of mis-treating those who are intersex, through interventions designed to “(hetero)normalize” their body and their psyche.

Last, but by no means least, without recognition, intersex individuals are frequently subject to a level of abuse and discrimination – not just in the UK, but across the globe, that would have anyone who identifies as LGBT instantly in court with the full backing of the Equality Commission.

In 2004, when offered the chance to begin the slow process of providing some legislative protection to those who are intersex, alongside those who are trans, UK politicians ducked.

In a week that saw the world’s first ever International Intersex Forum take place in Brussels, it is to be hoped that government will not wait another 6 years before it thinks again.

Picture of graffiti in Chisinau, containing the words “all different all equal”, by bagriton. Shared under a creative commons licence.

Comments From You

Emma Brownbill // Posted 9 September 2011 at 1:35 am

If you’re talking about the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, you’re sadly mistaken. They have not prosecuted a single case of trans discrimination, nor indeed has anyone, anywhere brought a prosecution under the Gender Recognition Act to date.

Under the Equality Act, it’s quite possible that the protected characteristic of Gender Reassignment would apply to intersex people, given that the defining nature of a protected characteristic is the perception in the eye of the offender, not the victim’s self-defined status. Just as trans people with no intention of surgery, or those who exist outside of the gender binary reluctantly accept such a characterisation, I’ve no doubt it sits uncomfortably and is likely ineffectual, but legal protection isn’t simply absent.

It should also be noted that in various US states, intersex individuals enjoy *greater* protection of their right to medical care, as advocacy organisations (perhaps to the detriment of trans people) have successfully argued that they are sufficiently different from trans people and thus aren’t affected by insurance exemptions that would otherwise deny them HRT or similar provision.

Sir Humphrey Appleby // Posted 10 September 2011 at 5:09 pm

I was one of the countless victims of Doctor John Money’s “John/Joan” theories. Society and the medical profession have erased the victims of Money’s theories that weren’t David Reimer. What I’m trying to say, is that I agree that intersex people still get a raw deal.

Jane Fae // Posted 12 September 2011 at 12:58 am


Thanks for the input. First comment: i tend not to equate the usefulness of a law with the degree to which it is used to prosecute people. It’s true that there have been no prosecutions under the Gender Recognition Act – but i am directly aware of several major financial organisations that have completely changed their processes to take account of requirements within the GRA.

Ditto the Equality Act. One big issue for trans women, as recently as two or three years ago, was having somewhere to pee whilst out and about in towns. The Equality Act isn’t final or prescriptive on that issue: but it has made life far, far easier. Add to that the way that trans issues have been rolled up into Equalities compliance audits, and i’d say that mere passage of the law has made a difference.

On the intersex front, i’d tend to disagree. This is the line put by the Home Office (as recently as last week). But it still leaves intersex people wholly bereft of protection in respect of service provision insofar as they ARE intersex. I mean, straight women can obtain protection under the law if they are fired because someone mistakenly believes them to be lesbian: but that seems to be beside the point.

I also have direct experience, through work i have done on this issue, of some quite appalling treatment meted out to intersex people and of bodies with authority quite brazenly rejecting complaints BECAUSE there is no EA protection.

On the US front, i’ll bow to your knowledge. I am aware of some quite militant intersex rights advocates in the US, so it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that more progress had been made over there: but i haven’t the experience to say one way or another. Thanks for your input.


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