An official statement coauthored by New York City health commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot and Carmelyn P. Malalis, head of NYC’s Commission on Human Rights, stated that the two are “joining forces as vocal and active allies for intersex people.”
In an essay titled, “Scalpels Down: Let Intersex Children Choose” published on Ozy.com June 30, Barbot writes of an experience some 25 years earlier dealing with an intersex patient who had been damaged, physically and mentally, by such a surgery.
“My patient’s gender was not immediately apparent,” Barbot recalls. “[Their responses] revealed that they had gone through genital reassignment surgery as a young child without their consent.”
After hearing more of the person’s story, the doctor says, “What I learned that day was that decisions made by adults out of ignorance and fear can leave lifelong physical and mental scars.”
The statement goes on to list some intersex facts as well. It is estimated that nearly 2 percent of the world’s population are born with an intersex trait — as common as being born with red hair, green eyes, or as identical twins. Yet, unlike redheads, intersex people are often stigmatized and ostracized because their sex characteristics are different from what we consider the norm.
“One out of every 2,000 American babies is estimated to be intersex — and at risk of being subjected to nonconsensual surgeries to “normalize” their body at birth,” the essay continues. “The operations are often done because parents are provided with no other option and they believe surgery is best for their child. The problem is, performing surgery at infancy can be damaging and traumatic. Side effects can include sterilization, urinary incontinence and scarring, and there is no way to know whether the choice made will be consistent with how that child understands their gender identity later in life.”
“To be clear, the procedures are extremely powerful when sought intentionally and used to affirm someone’s gender,” add the city officials. “The issue around surgeries is not that they are unnecessary for all. The key is self-determination and autonomy — no matter how scary the unknown of having an intersex child, it is far worse for children to cope with the devastating outcomes of surgeries that were not consensual. In recognition of these social and physiological concerns, progress is being made, with a growing consensus among medical providers to defer surgical interventions until a child is able to have a voice in the process.”
Though Bardot and Malalis and Barbot’s statement is powerful, it is not yet an official policy or law, but rather, a plea to the medical community to join this consensus in which “everyone should be able to access gender-affirming care and that no one should ever be forced to undergo genital surgery.”
“Now is the time for doctors to respect the rights of intersex people, use compassionate care with children and only perform surgery when the health of a child is at imminent risk or it is consensual,” they conclude. “Parents deserve to be given resources for social and psychological support when their children are born with intersex traits, not pressured into having doctors operate. New York City will continue to support and advocate for intersex people, and we call on others to join us as allies.”