Should Infant Sex Assignment Surgery Be Illegal? 

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Jan. 3 2014 5:21 PM

Intersex Movement Gains Ground in Germany and Beyond

127763486
The fight for more than male and female includes intersex people.

Photo by THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images

In a great piece that you may have missed amid the New Year's festivities earlier this week, The New Yorker's Emily Greenhouse offered a nuanced and welcome update on the encouraging progress of the intersex rights movement. For those not familiar with the terminology, intersex refers to those individuals born with mixed or otherwise indeterminate sex characteristics (including genitals), who, until recently, were as a matter of course subjected as infants to "corrective" sex-assignment surgeries. While doctors and parents likely conceptualized the measure as a way to make their child’s life easier, intersex advocates persuasively argue that the medical choosing of sex is also about the comfort of the male/female binary—as Greenhouse puts it, an invasive procedure performed "just so nurses can tick 'male' or 'female' on [a child’s] birth certificate."

As Greenhouse’s reporting reveals, those little check marks can cause a great deal of pain, especially when the imposed sex does not suit the patient later in life. It’s this kind of pain that Germany tried to address in November when it became the first European country to offer a third gender designation aside from male or female. Greenhouse explains the implications of “X”:

The legal acknowledgment of a third category should mean that fewer doctors urge parents to have sex-assignment surgery performed on their newborns. Fewer children should suffer the plight described by one person quoted in a report that helped lead to the new law, a German born with ambiguous genitalia in 1965, who spoke of being a “patchwork created by doctors, bruised and scarred.”
Advertisement

Though the situation of intersex people is in many ways distinct from the gay or even transgender rights movements, Greenhouse also notes how progress in the various areas, though uneven, are ultimately connected.

While broader cultural developments have begun to clear space for the expression of formerly unorthodox sexualities and gender identities, those who would have once been called hermaphrodites remain even more marginal than transgender persons. But the order in which old taboos dissolve varies without much logic: the movement for gay rights and same-sex marriage has helped the admittedly slower recognition of transgender issues, while intersex rights have sometimes been granted in statutes, like the one in New Jersey, that enhance transgender rights.

For more on all of this, including more stories from intersex adults, take a few minutes to read Greenhouse’s excellent piece

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.