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National NOW Times >> Summer 2002 >> Article

A Girl's Right to Choose: Intersex Children and Parents Challenge Narrow Standards of Gender

by Riki Wilchins, Guest Writer

At NOW's 2001 National Conference members overwhelmingly passed a resolution upholding intersex girls' "right to choose."

While NOW members are familiar with Female Genital Mutilation, few know about Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM), a common U.S. medical practice in which infants' genitals are cosmetically altered to more closely resemble medical ideals.

About one in every 2,000 births is declared intersex. Although considered "compassionate surgery," in actuality the vast majority of IGM surgeries involve otherwise unremarkable infants who simply have clitorises larger than an arbitrary standard of about 3/8 inch. While it is impossible to imagine boys undergoing surgery because their penises are "too large," nonetheless large clitorises are seen as omens of lesbianism, lack of male interest, or unfemininity.

About five such operations are performed each day in U.S. hospitals on uncomplaining infants who have no chance to participate in or be informed on procedures that will affect their lives, bodies, and future sexual functioning.

Below are stories by an IGM survivor and a mother whose child is intersexed. We hope they will inform NOW members on the resolution as well as move them to speak out on this pressing feminist issue.

Dandara Hill: In Her Own Words

"When I was born in 1957, doctors weren't sure if I was a boy with a small penis or a girl with a large clitoris that had no vaginal opening. Either way, my body wasn't normal in the traditional medical sense. My parents were told that my body could be 'fixed,' had to be fixed for me to live a normal life. The surgery to normalize my genitals should be done quickly, so that I would have no memory of it. They were told not to tell anyone about my uniqueness. I would be fine, they were reassured, as long as they kept the truth from me.

"There were always men in white coats parading through the exam room to look at my 'private parts.' They often talked about my body as if my hearing wasn't normal either, never talking to me, only about me.

"My earliest memories are about being different, a freak that needed to be fixed. I learned early that whatever was wrong with my body shouldn't be talked about. Constantly hearing, 'You're fine; you're normal,' never made me feel that way.

"I learned to live with the body—not the one I was born with—but the one that had been created for me. Drowning in dishonesty while striving to be normal, I am only now beginning to shed the shame and secrecy.

"We now understand that cutting genitals doesn't change or reinforce gender or sexual preference. We know that repeated childhood trauma, secrecy and shame shape us as adults. We know there is more value to our bodies than the ability to have babies. Consent and choice are taken away when early genital surgeries are performed.

"We also know that adults who escaped early genital surgery experienced their own trauma of growing up unique, but, hearing our stories, they are thankful that no one took a knife to their genitals. While some choose to have surgery later in life, many do not.

"Why are these early surgeries still taking place at the rate of five per day in the United States? Firstly, people like us are only beginning to voice our feelings. Doing so is intensely personal and brings back childhood traumas. The shame and secrecy of early genital surgery never goes away.

"Secondly, the medical community views the world in terms of normal and abnormal. Anything abnormal must be corrected. We are telling the medical community to do nothing, and doctors have difficulty not treating a patient. They should know that their efforts and secrecy do not heal us. They harm us."

Deborah Hartman: A Mother's Voice

"When my baby was born, doctors told me that my child was the only child born this way—intersexed. After a two-and-a-half week debate, doctors at two different hospitals decided he was a boy, a son I was in love with from day one. Everything became boy-oriented in my home.

"A few months later, my baby went in for routine hernia surgery. Doctors came into the waiting room with grave expressions, and, as any mother would, I feared for my child. What they told me was something very unexpected. After three months of convincing me my child was male, they told me they were now convinced he was a girl!

"This reversal is a common practice where intersex children are concerned. They told me that, unless I allowed them to cut out my child's gonad and remove the phallus, his (now her) genitals would become cancerous. I've since learned that there is no medical basis for this diagnosis except that extra tissue might one day develop complications. As would any mother filled with confusion and fear, I heard the word cancer, and signed the papers. I was afraid to lose my beautiful baby.

"Now I had to see Kyle as Kelli. I had to legally change my baby's name; I had to tell my family and friends! I flipped out in the waiting room that day, while my 'daughter's' genitals were forever changed. No doctor, psychiatrist, or priest could answer my questions.

"Kelli has had four more cosmetic/corrective surgeries since that day. Her genitals carry ugly scars. She asks me deep questions. I agonize over how I will ever explain this all to her. My baby suffered having her genitals cut up unnecessarily.

"I now know we could have waited until she was older, when she could participate in all decisions about her body. Her right to choose was taken from her in part because of the uneducated, uninformed decisions I made under the guidance of doctors with old, patriarchal notions of what boys' and girls' bodies should look like. I have to live with that—they don't. They move on and continue to do the same to others. Kelli and I live with these decisions every day of our lives."

A Feminist Issue

If you and I knew a thousand girls were about to be clitorectomized here in the U.S., we would be up in arms. Yet, look beyond the medical label "intersex," and that is what will happen to a thousand children in the coming year. Just to reinforce narrow, binary notions of what girls' bodies should look like.

YOU can help stop it. Write to the head of pediatrics at your local hospital with a copy of this article and NOW's resolution. Educate parents in your local chapter about NOW's resolution and a girl's right to choose.

And do what NOW has always done best: speak out loud and clear until the practice stops, and we end shame and secrecy and — yes — cosmetic genital cutting of intersex girls' bodies.

Guest writer Riki Wilchins is Executive Director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (Gender PAC), the national organization working to end discrimination and violence caused by gender stereotypes. For more information, visit Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (Gender PAC), Intersex Society of North America, or Ms. Magazine's "Making the Cut" story.

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