Intersex people are not rare, but they are widely unrecognized. Biology classes often oversimplify gender and sex. We are taught that sex is simply male or female. But sex, in reality, is a spectrum—with the majority of humans appearing to exist at one end or the other. Gender surgeries are almost torturous for infants who are born intersex.
While transgender men and women seek sex reassignment surgeries at an age when they know what they want, intersex people often don't get that chance. Parents and families have bouts of panic or shock and quickly jump onto the gender surgery wagon. However, the likeliness of the baby needing the surgery is almost nil, usually, the baby is healthy and delaying the surgery won't hurt it in any way.
The need to jump straight into gender surgeries for such young children stems from the conditioning that a child is either male or female. The lack of a clear sign as to what sex the baby is can be confusing but it isn't rare. Most intersex children, after puberty usually understand themselves better and can then make the call for surgery. But parents get it done usually soon after birth.
Who Are Intersex People?
As many as 1.7 percent of babies are different from what is typically called a boy or a girl. The chromosomes, gonads, internal or external genitalia in these children differ from social expectations. Around 1 in 2,000 babies are different enough that doctors may recommend surgical intervention to make the body appear more in line with gender norm expectations.
Some intersex traits - such as atypical external genitalia are apparent at birth. Othe traits like gonads (both testes and ovaries) or chromosomes (both X and Y) that do not match the expectations of the assigned sexes.
For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia.
Why Are Gender Surgeries A Wrong Move At Birth?
In most cases, intersex gender surgeries occur without medical necessity or urgency. The children are healthy and no medical consequences arise if the gender surgeries are not carried out immediately. More importantly, children undergoing such surgeries are often too young to understand what is happening to them and are legally too young to provide their consent.
Many intersex children undergo what is called genital “normalising” procedures, which implies these children’s bodies are abnormal. The procedures, intended to make the children conform to social norms of male or female bodies, often include irreversible surgical modification of sexual organs. These may result in sterilisation by removal of their gonads (testes or ovaries), and life-long hormone treatments.
Those who advocate for these procedures to be carried out often argue that the chance of medical success is higher and that the children can grow up with a consistent gender identity. However, this ignores the human rights of these children to independently develop a gender identity and decide for themselves whether they want their bodies to be altered irreversibly.
The history of gender surgeries is also a history of shame and stigmatization. In some cases, doctors instructed parents to conceal the diagnosis and treatment from the child, instilling feelings of shame in parents and children both. Many intersex people did not learn about their conditions until they accessed their medical files as adults—sometimes as late as in their 50s.
What Can We Do Instead?
Over time and with support and pressure from advocates, some medical norms have evolved. Today, intersex children and their families often consult a team of specialists and not just a surgeon. The medical community has evolved in its approach to intersex cases- which doctors often categorize as “Differences of Sex Development” or “DSD”—by establishing “DSD teams.”
Disclosure of a child’s intersex traits to the child is widely recommended and commonly conducted. During this evolution in care, gender surgeries on intersex children’s genitals have become highly controversial within the medical community.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture has also recognized gender surgeries for intersex people as an issue of concern. They stated - "cases where gonads have been removed and cosmetic surgeries on reproductive organs… without the effective, informed consent of the concerned individuals or their legal guardians..."
Instead of fast-tracking the gender surgeries, simply waiting for your child to grow up and understand their identity while being supportive is important. Gender surgeries often lead to traumatic experiences for children who cannot undo these surgeries. Informing your child about their true identity is just as important instead of concealing the truth, which causes more complications in understanding identity.