Being intersex is hard, our silence makes it harder

by and

The global silence around intersex lives reflects negatively on the mental health of intersex individuals and communities.

A few weeks ago, during our sub-regional dialogue on #BeingLGBTI, we met Kris, an intersex and a trans person and an activist from Serbia, working actively on LGBTI rights issues. Kris has an intimate understanding of issues faced by intersex people and their families both through his personal experiences and professional work.

One of the biggest obstacles for Kris has been to find people who are not traumatized enough to open up and talk about their experiences. In Kristian’s experience, there have been virtually no social support groups that would help him and other intersex individuals feel less isolated. That’s why these days he is part of an organisation providing support for LGBTI people.

Kris often felt “different” starting from a young age. Unable to identify the source of this feeling, he was left confused, afraid and embarrassed. Such feelings of being wrong and internalized stigma can become very distressing and ultimately destructive for one’s mental health. Adding to distress, intersex people are often forced to go through unjustified surgeries as babies and young children. Such operations not only constitute a clear violation of intersex people’s right to health and physical integrity, but they also become sources of heavy trauma for many intersex people.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” most new parents are asked as soon as their baby is born. That question, ordinary to most, weighs heavily on the parents of intersex babies. What’s worse is that this preoccupation with the baby’s sex has been coded into law: binary gender classification exists in most legal systems, which means parents are faced with a tough decision. The newborn must be registered as a male or a female, which requires families to proceed quickly with “corrective” and “normalizing” surgeries, often with physical and mental consequences on intersex individuals that can last a lifetime.

The role of medical professionals is very crucial in the lives of intersex people. If doctors perceive gender diversity as a “disorder”, they put intersex children through repeated genital examinations, leaving them vulnerable to psychological trauma.

When parents receive medicalized information about their child’s “condition” from the doctors, they tend to opt more for early genital surgery. Having an early operation is often only the first of many medical procedures for these people. A study conducted in London reveals that 98 percent of intersex women, who underwent feminization surgery as an infant had to receive further treatment, including additional surgeries throughout their lives.

It’s clear that to begin upholding the rights of intersex people and protecting their physical and mental health, we must first socially and legally recognize intersex people’s existence.

Intersex people are not alone in facing an epidemic of mental health conditions. Depression and other mental health problems are significant issues for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as well. LGBTI communities are at a substantially higher risk of emotional distress, depression and anxiety disorders. Chronic stress factors related to stigmatized identities, such as victimisation, prejudice and discrimination increase the risk of mental health problems for LGBTI people.

April 7 marks World Health Day. This year’s theme focuses on talking about depression. One of the greatest challenges to achieving better mental health outcomes remains ensuring social inclusion for everyone including intersex people and other excluded communities. On World Health Day, we therefore use the occasion to once again renew our commitment to empowering members of marginalized groups and to protecting their human rights.

Isn’t it time we stepped up to break the silence on the lives of intersex people?

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