Words by Gabbie Lynch
Image: Del Kathryn Barton
Content Warning: Intersex and Female Genital Mutilation
Female Genital Mutilation has long been a cultural practice throughout Africa. The number of cases of FGM are slowly reducing thanks to the tireless human rights activists who shone light on the issue in late 20th century. It is hard, in our western society, to even begin to comprehend how something as horrid as FGM could be practiced so regularly on young women and girls. It’s easy to disconnect ourselves from the issue and find comfort in the fact that we wouldn’t let any young women undergo such a brutal and disfiguring procedure.
But we may not be as far away from the issue as we might like to believe. Genital mutilation occurs in the western world and probably much more commonly then you may believe. Intersex advocates are calling it The Silent Epidemic.
Once referred to as hermaphrodites, intersex folk as those people born with sex organs that are not traditionally male or female parts, or they possess parts that are both male and female. According to the Intersex Society of North America, it is estimated that 1.7% of the population are intersex – that’s roughly the same percentage as red heads. Despite these numbers, there is little research on intersex folk and intersex genitalia and the conservative medical world is still fixated on defining sex as either traditionally female or traditionally male.
In order to overcome this “issue”, doctors have brought it upon themselves to reconstruct intersex genitalia into binary categories of either male or female. It’s called IGM – Intersex Genital Mutilation and involves a medical team reconstructing the genitals of an intersex baby usually within their first year of life. In most cases, there is nothing wrong with the genitalia, other then it does not appear to be either traditionally female or traditionally male. Doctors have the choice to either assign the baby as female or male, depending on how they go about reconstructing the genitals and whether a baby shows more signs or male or female organs. From this moment onwards, the child bereft of their own voice, is forced into a binary sex and thus usually pressured to conform into a cis-gendered identity. But what if the doctors got it all wrong?
IGM surgery, in most instances, is discovered by the person during their adolescence when they begin to recognise they do not fit into gendered binaries of either male or female. Their sex, that is their biological anatomy, may not coincide with their gendered expression, that is either feminine or masculine. Questions start to be asked and usually the individual discovers they are (or were) an intersex folk.
German model Hanne Gaby Odiele is an intersex advocate and found out she was subjected to IGM surgery as a baby when she was 17 years old. Odiele argues that there is nothing wrong with IGM as long as it has been performed with the prior consent of the person receiving it. Otherwise, is it really that different from cases of FGM in Africa?
Flowers grow in all shapes and sizes and colours. Dripping in a kaleidoscope of colours and pattern, the natural world of flora has never been criticised for diversity… so why should our genitals? Our genitalia has often been symbolised through flowers so why are told our ‘bits’ have to appear one of two ways? Isn’t the admirable beauty in flora embedded in its diversity?
And now, some doctors and surgeons have taken it upon themselves, as if they some kind of God, to reconstruct a baby’s genitals before they even have the mental and emotional capacity to know the difference between male and female? And then that child is assigned to a gender based on the genitals a doctor has constructed for them?
Unfortunately, for many intersex people who underwent IGM as a baby, life has been extremely difficult. Many express feelings of betrayal. Some feel their life up to that point has been somewhat of a lie and ultimately IGM disabled them from their most fundamental human right – the right to determine your own identity.
There is an inherit human fear of not being “normal” – we want to stand out but we still want to slide back into neat and tidy categories so we know belong. But sometimes these categories are so reductionist and so demanding that we feel the need to manipulate the most personal parts of who we are just to fit in.
But now is the time to understand that we cannot categorise people into gender binaries terms of either feminine or masculine NOR can we categorise people into sex binaries of female or male. This is not a matter of politics, or some crazy alt-left theories – these are human rights issues. Intersex Genital Mutilation is a human rights issue. IGM is not a political debate or a cultural theory. And because we are all human, no matter what your political, cultural or social or economic beliefs may be, the impacts of IGM is a discussion we all need to have.
At the end of the day, we owe it to each other to allow everyone to express their own versions of themselves without the restrictions of social, cultural and gendered categories. And its time for our medical professionals to listen. Intersex folk deserve the same basic human rights as everyone else – the right to determine what happens to their own bodies.
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