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Izzy MacCallum intersex rights
Izzy MacCallumPhotography Asafe Ghalib

Intersex people on how they want to be treated and accepted

‘It is society that needs fixing, not intersex bodies’ – activists at the Voices4 London demo talk candidly on Intersex Awareness Day

“I look forward to a time when parents aren’t made to feel the need to hide from their child that they are intersex. I look forward to a day when intersex variations are not treated as disorders that need fixing,” Rachelle Newman, an intersex activist, said at the London rally on Intersex Awareness Day 2019.

This day was established in 2003 by US intersex activists Emi Koyama and Betsy Driver to commemorate the first public intersex demonstration in 1996. 23 years on, the fight is still ongoing. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe people born with biological variations in their sex characteristics that don’t fit “male” or “female” categories. These variations may be present in people’s chromosomes, hormones, genitals and/or internal sex organs, like testes or ovaries. Intersex traits can also be linked to genetic mosaicism, where some cells in the body have XX chromosomes and others XY. 

Medicine has traditionally viewed intersex people as needing to be “fixed” with involuntary medical intervention, also known as Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM), simply to make their bodies conform to traditional notions of “male” or “female”. Many cases of IGM change the appearance or sexual function of a child’s genitals and are carried out at a very young age, without consent and often with no transparency regarding the details.

On Saturday October 26, peaceful direct action group Voices 4 London responded to an international call by the Intersex Justice Project to organise events in support of The End Intersex Surgery Campaign. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community gathered in Soho Square Gardens in London to offer support and attention to the intersex activists leading the rally. Through the pouring rain, the crowd listened as Newman was joined by Martin Di Maggio and Valentino Vecchietti to call for an end to non-consensual forced surgery, brandishing hand-painted signs with slogans such as “Your Body, Your Choice, Your Rights”, “Delay is Okay”, and “Intersex Stories Not Surgeries”.

This was followed by a short impromptu march, accompanied by shouts of “Your Body, Your Choice”. The group gathered in front of the sexual health clinic, 56 Dean Street, to celebrate that the intersex flag was flying there for the first time ever in recognition of Intersex Awareness Day. The services are also currently amending their equalities policy to include intersex people.

Here, we spoke with four intersex activists who were present at the rally about what intersex justice looks like.


What one pervasive myth or misunderstanding around the lived experiences of intersex people do you most wish you could address widely?

Rachelle Newman: That we don’t exist. There are many activists doing amazing work to improve intersex visibility yet sadly many people still do not know what the word intersex means. I want intersex people to be able to say “I’m intersex” and receive a response not much more than “ah okay, cool!”.

What’s something about your experience as an intersex person, that you wish people were aware of and understood?

Rachelle Newman: In regards to my personal experience, I wish society as a whole was more aware of and understood the mental health impacts that resulted from my treatment. Being told I was infertile at age 11 was the worst day of my life but I wish people would also understand the impacts of the events that followed. For example, the dread I would feel thinking about my biannual appointments, having to expose my chest to a doctor without knowing why, the daily reminder of taking tablets I did not understand the purpose of and the internal dialogue with myself as I discovered and wondered why my body was different, why I had scars. I wish people would understand the shame imposed on myself and many other intersex individuals from a young age and the negative repercussions of this. 

If you could say something to your younger self, what would you say?

Rachelle Newman: You are not alone. One day it will all make sense. You will become strong and when you share the part of yourself that you have been ashamed of for so long you will receive more acceptance than you can imagine. You will learn to love the things you thought you couldn’t.


What’s something about your experience as an intersex person, either generally or specifically within the UK, that you wish people were aware of and understood?

Martin Di Maggio: That we have no protection against molestation and sexual abuse, doctors do and have legally gotten away with sexual abuse because they claim they are only doing medical testing. Yet many of us have experienced intrusive “examinations” that had a doctor done them on an endosex (non-intersex) woman they’d be imprisoned, yet with us, the law doesn’t even protect us and doctors go free. Look up the case of Aivar Bracka.

What are your thoughts on the Gender Recognition Act within the context of how it might impact intersex people and, especially, children?

Martin Di Maggio: I think that parents being able to put an X marker on a child’s birth certificate means nothing for intersex children as long as we don’t have protection against IGM. Having ‘X’ as an intersex child would perhaps just make us more vulnerable to unwanted medical attention.


What is one misunderstanding around the lived experiences of intersex people that you most wish you could address widely?

Izzy MacCallum: One misunderstanding/assumption that I’ve noticed a lot of people have is that they think being intersex is necessarily referring to someone’s genitalia. In reality, there are a wide variety of traits and sex characteristics that can mean someone’s biology doesn’t fit the typical definitions of “male” or “female”. Maybe someone has XY chromosomes and testes but a vagina and no uterus. Or someone has an extra chromosome, like XXY, or they could have mosaic genetics. People can have no ovaries or testes or one of each… you see what I’m getting at.

What’s something about your experience as an intersex person, either generally or specifically within the UK, that you wish people were aware of and understood?

Izzy MacCallum: The argument that these non-consensual surgeries are done to “ease the social discomfort” of intersex people not only denies the individual bodily autonomy, but it actually perpetuates “social discomfort”. Intersex people challenge the social norms and understandings of sex and gender as a binary, and by keeping sex and gender within a binary frame it can be used to enforce and maintain social and historical forms of oppression. It is society that needs fixing, not intersex bodies.


If you had to pinpoint it and you’re comfortable sharing it, what’s the one external or personal thing that has most positively impacted your life so far?

Valentino Vecchietti: I grew up feeling so alone and scared, and filled with shame. But as an adult, finding connection with other intersex people, and finding acceptance and love amongst my friends, has been an amazing and moving journey for me.

How do you think the Gender Recognition Act could better protect intersex people and, especially, children?

Valentino Vecchietti: Current medical protocols for intersex kids don’t support our human right to bodily integrity and bodily autonomy. We need ethical, patient-centred, healthcare and medical treatment, which must include the option of correcting birth certificates.

If you could say something to your younger self, what would you say?

Valentino Vecchietti: You will find love, you will find friends, you can belong.