It marks the birthday of Herculine Barban, a French intersex person who lived from 1838 to 1868. Her memoirs, combined with additional research, were published by Michel Foucault in the 1970s as Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-century French Hermaphrodite.
An intersex person does not fit the typical definition of male or female. They may have variations in their chromosomes, genitals or internal organs like testes or ovaries. Many chose to identify as male or female. Others describe themselves as intersex, or use the broader term queer. Worldwide, roughly the same proportion of people are born intersex as have red hair (1-2% of the global population). The latest reliable statistic on the population size of intersex people is 1.7%.
Intersex Day of Remembrance shines a spotlight on the unnecessary medical operations intersex people have been subjected to, as well as the other issues they face.
Intersex Genital Mutilation: still a standard practice
It is not unusual for intersex people to have suffered surgeries from doctors seeking to “normalise” their physical characteristics. This is sometimes done at birth, or during puberty, but often without the consent of the individual or their parents. Frequently the medical reasons for intervention are kept a secret from patients and their families. Or, are misinformed and ushered towards “normalising” the child.
In my case, I was born with a micropenis and no testes. At the age of 9 my parents, under influence of my paediatrician and a surgeon decided it would be a great idea to turn me into “a normal functioning boy”. Three operations later, at the age of 15, I was left traumatised and fully aware that something was definitely wrong.
Many health professionals live in a vacuum
When it comes to intersex variation, a fairly mainstream expression for intersex people within the medical community is to describe them as having a “disorder of sex development.”
Doctors often tell parents that they should not reveal to other people that their child is intersex, so this creates an atmosphere of fear and repression from day one. It can subsequently be very hard for intersex people to find one another, as they had been taught in the past not to discuss being intersex. This can lead to feelings of isolation and low self-worth.
This is why I have created Intersex Vlaanderen. A facebook group which is meant to be a place for our community in Flanders to find each other and create meaningful connections.
Intersex vs Transgender
In terms of the population generally, there is confusion around transgender and intersex identities. To clarify, transgender concerns gender identity, whereas intersex is to do with biological characteristics. Many intersex people do feel an affinity with transgender people, and vice versa. In the end, we both have had to fight similar battles and we encounter a lot of stigma. A key difference is that intersex people have often been the subject of surgeries they did not want, whilst trans people have had to fight for surgeries they do want.
In some cases, like mine, I started out without an option, following my parents, paediatrician and surgeon. 30 years onwards I was faced with the necessity to reverse everything in order to align with my essence. And this is exactly why we need this Day of Remembrance. All to often, and still today, parents allow their children to be genitally mutilated. No parent wants this, and yet…
For more information, you can always contact our European advocacy group OII Europe (OII: Organisation Intersex International).
I also created GenderMojo, a platform for gender-driven communities to grow. Or, get in touch with me directly, I’m more than happy to support and guide you further. I also regularly speak from my life to bring testimony to the trauma we are subjected to.
Cover picture: Herculina and Sarah Bernhardt from a production of Herculina