The definitions: what is intersex?
Intersex people are born with physical, hormonal or genetic features that are neither wholly female nor wholly male; or a combination of female and male; or neither female nor male. Many forms of intersex exist; it is a spectrum or umbrella term, rather than a single category.
An intersex individual is born intersex. Some common intersex variations are diagnosed prenatally via pre-natal genetic screening. Intersex differences may be visibly apparent at birth. Some intersex traits become apparent at puberty, or when trying to conceive, or through random chance. Other instances may only be discovered during an autopsy.
The lowest popular statistic is around 1 in 2,000 people (.05% of births) but a more likely figure is closer to 1.7%. This makes intersex differences about as common as red hair.
What are the main human rights issues for intersex people?
Intersex issues are extremely specific and require technical and medical knowledge. It is difficult to escape the fact that many intersex people face extreme human rights violations right from birth. Many intersex children are forced into surgery – and mostly without any form of consent. Parents of intersex babies are often ill-informed and medical professionals can be quick to propose “corrective” surgery, aiming to “normalise” the sex of the child. Such treatment can result in irreversible sex assignment and sterilisation.
Another complication intersex people often face is trying to obtain legal recognition of their sex on birth certificates and other official documents. Intersex people can often be left in a chaotic, limbo-like situation. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks expressed his view on this subject in a piece for ILGA-Europe’s Destination>> Equality magazine: “Intersex individuals should be granted full legal recognition from birth and amendments to their sex or gender classification should be facilitated to reflect their individual choices later on.”
Commissioner Muižnieks also issued a more detailed comment in 2014 on the fact that intersex people in Europe often face hurdles when it comes to legal recognition of their sex.
What is the link between intersex and LGBT?
ILGA-Europe are addressing human rights violations faced by intersex people because LGBTI activism is mainly about fighting for the rights of people who fall outside of binary sex and gender norms. In addition, like all people, some intersex individuals are LGBT or queer. This being said, many intersex people do not necessarily see themselves as part of the LGBTI community and do not see what is common between their life-experiences and the ones of LGBT people.
There is also a community of intersex activists working at national level. This includes LGBTI organisations or groups dedicated specifically on intersex issues. LGBTI people can be united by common life experiences and a desire to eradicate inequality.
Whether you identify as L,G,B,T, or I, you might have faced discrimination, harassment or felt suffocated by society’s traditional gender norms. By their very nature, different organisations will have different advocacy and lobbying priorities, but they can all describe what it feels like to be in a minority group fighting for their human rights.
What is the current legal situation for intersex people in Europe?
There are only a few European countries which have introduced legislation that expressly mention intersex. This puts intersex people in a very uncertain legal situation where they are not protected against discrimination on the ground of their sex characteristics. In addition, almost no country in Europe prohibits medically unnecessary surgeries of intersex people without informed consent – this is something ILGA-Europe and intersex activists desperately want to see change.
What are the European institutions doing?
In 2013, the EU adopted the Guidelines To Promote and Protect the Enjoyment of All Human Rights by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons. The Guidelines are the first ever EU policy document explicitly referring to intersex people.
However, the European Union (EU) does not explicitly recognise the ground of intersex or the ground of sex characteristics. But in 2012, the European Commission published a thematic report on “Discrimination against trans and intersex people on the grounds of sex, gender identity and gender expression”, which examined the situation of discrimination against intersex people in Europe for the first time. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) made history in 2013by passing a resolution on the bodily integrity of intersex children. PACE Resolution 1952 (2013) is the first resolution of its kind by any European institution. The resolution urges national authorities to “undertake further research to increase knowledge about the specific situation of intersex people, ensure that no-one is subjected to unnecessary medical or surgical treatment that is cosmetic rather than vital for health during infancy or childhood, guarantee bodily integrity, autonomy and self-determination to persons concerned, and provide families with intersex children with adequate counselling and support.
How does ILGA-Europe work on intersex issues?
ILGA-Europe became an LGBTI organisation following the decision, taken at the 2008 Vienna Conference, to include ‘intersex’ in ILGA World’s name and mandate. As a result, ILGA-Europe initiated a long thinking process about the best way to lend our support to the emerging intersex movement.
One thing was crystal clear to us – we needed to focus on increasing our internal knowledge about issues faced by intersex people. This included examining our legitimacy to work on intersex issues, ensuring that intersex organisations had a voice within ILGA-Europe and supporting their capacity-building. This work is ongoing and a high priority within the organisation – for all the staff, executive board and our members.
Since 2011, ILGA-Europe has facilitated the first three Intersex Forums in cooperation with ILGA World. The idea behind the Forum was to create an opportunity for intersex activists to come together and identify areas of joint work. The aim was also to reflect and take into account the diversity of the intersex movement. While ILGA World and ILGA-Europe provided financial support for the forums, intersex activists took ownership for the direction and the organisation of the events.
ILGA-Europe continues to give priority to providing support to intersex activists based on the needs and objectives defined by European intersex activists themselves. This could be strategic advocacy planning, organisational learning and/or familiarisation with the European institutions (EU and the Council of Europe).
In addition, ILGA-Europe is progressively integrating intersex issues within its different working areas. We are identifying the situations where intersex people are specifically at risk of human rights violations and pinpointing opportunities for further advocacy strategies. We find ways to connect policy-makers and other NGOs with intersex activists. ILGA-Europe also works on building capacity of LGBTI organisations to support intersex activists at national level and to contribute to advocacy on the human rights of intersex people.
Outcome European Intersex Meetings:
- For more information, contact Cianán Russell, Senior Policy Officer.