Visibility for trans and gender non-conforming people is at an all-time high, bringing with it great successes in protection, like the recent presidential executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and this month's reversal of the transgender military ban. Yet neither of these actions addressed the ongoing human rights abuses facing intersex people or the ban on military service by “hermaphrodites” (the most offensive term you can call an intersex person). As the leadership of the nation’s largest organization dedicated to intersex advocacy, we are disappointed that the Biden-Harris administration’s first overture to the LGBTQI+ community has fallen short of meaningful inclusion for this oft-overlooked population.
Up until the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bostock, our communities were at risk of being fired because of being LGBTQI+. The Trump administration tried to remove protections in healthcare we fought hard to include in the Affordable Care Act and argued for policy prohibiting transgender and intersex children from going to the bathroom at school. Intersex infants continue to have their sex organs surgically removed or altered at major children’s hospitals across the country, a practice stemming from the result of a failed 1960s medical experiment at Johns Hopkins University, that the United Nations calls a form of torture. And intersex adults remain barred from military service despite zero evidence that they are unfit to serve, the Department of Defense adding insult to injury by referring to intersex people with a perjorative and outdated slur.
All the Democratic candidates committed to significant actions on behalf of the LGBTQI+ community. Senator Warren and then-Mayor Buttigieg each took a step further, including intersex individuals in their promise to uplift the entire LGBTQ, and I, community. We entered 2021 thrilled that intersex people, the 1-2 percent of the population born with differences in their reproductive organs, might no longer be considered “less than” by the federal government. They would no longer be banned from the military or denied choices about major surgeries. Medical recommendations from three former U.S. surgeons general condemning surgeries such as reducing the size of a child’s clitoris, creating or deepening an infant’s vagina, or removing their hormone-making gonads would be followed in children’s hospitals across the country, as they are already at the pediatric teaching hospitals of both Northwestern and Harvard medical schools.
The Biden administration’s actions have already addressed so much harmful policy of the last four years. The order prohibiting LGBTQ+ discrimination and the repeal of the ban on transgender military service drew a terrific line in the sand, and yet, intersex people were erased yet again. This is particularly painful for individuals like Lavelle Wollam, an intersex woman who attempted multiple times to enlist but was unsuccessful due to her intersex status despite being perfectly healthy. Reacting to the executive order, Wollam said: "Those who are physically and mentally able to serve should be allowed the opportunity to do so, and to do it without discrimination, or any form of hostile ridicule while in uniform."
As protective measures supporting the rights of intersex people pass across the world, from India to Iceland, we wait to see what the United States government will do to protect intersex youth from surgeries they never asked for and to allow intersex adults to proudly serve their country. Our request comes not to downplay the crucial forward movement our new president has achieved with less than a week in office. Rather, we see an opportunity to engage with the momentum we know will change the lives of millions of Americans who are just as deserving of equal protection under the law.
Today, we ask President Biden: how long must the intersex community wait?
Kimberly Zieselman is the Executive Director and Alesdair H. Ittelson is the Director of Law & Policy at interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth.