Intersex Awareness Day, observed on October 26, serves as a powerful reminder of the enduring courage displayed by intersex individuals. This significant day, established in 2003 by U.S. intersex activists Emi Koyama and Betsy Driver, commemorates the first public intersex demonstration in 1996. Back then, taking a stand was an act of remarkable bravery.
Before the internet era, many intersex people had never encountered someone like themselves. The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), a pioneering support organization, brought together a small community of intersex individuals. Less than a dozen among them were willing to step into the public eye. Despite their fears, they blazed a trail.
Early activists grappled with the decision to take their cause public, given the shame, stigma, and erasure that had kept them silent for decades. However, the stars aligned when the American Academy of Pediatrics convened in Boston in 1996, amid rising anger within the intersex community over institutional support for the U.S.’s first national law against female genital mutilation – a law that overlooked nonconsensual genital surgery on intersex children.
A courageous group of fewer than ten intersex people took to the streets of Boston, demanding intersex bodily autonomy and carrying signs that boldly reclaimed a medicalized slur under the iconic slogan “Hermaphrodites with Attitude!” These early activists found allies among trans women, with members of the trans liberation group Transexual Menace joining the demonstration in a display of solidarity.
We protest our realities being reduced to “disorders”
Similar to LGBTQ+ identities, intersex variations have long been pathologized. Today, institutions still categorize intersex variations as “disorders,” reducing our bodies and humanity to isolated components. Invasive procedures to “correct” these differences and “normalize” intersex bodies continue, with no formal U.S. medical policy prohibiting nonconsensual surgery on intersex infants and children. Like gender and sexuality, sex exists along a natural spectrum, and the fight continues for recognition as people first.
The intersex movement is young
Advocating for justice, civil rights, and legal protections is a long-term endeavor, often spanning decades. It took 27 years from the first public action for intersex bodily autonomy to the first legislation recognizing it, which occurred in just one U.S. state in 2018. Policy change is gradual and necessitates a significant shift in mainstream awareness. Despite its relative youth, the intersex movement draws strength from its deep-rooted existence throughout human history.
Intersex erasure is rooted in homophobia
Historically, European authorities in the 19th century perceived the romantic and sexual relationships of intersex people as a threat to heterosexuality’s boundaries. While surgeries on sex organs were uncommon before anesthesia’s widespread use, some states ordered intersex individuals to divorce their partners and adopt new social gender roles if their anatomy suggested homosexual relationships. Dangerous theories that gender could be molded through nurture over nature justified childhood intersex surgeries, popularized in the 1950s.
This history endures today, with chromosomes now used as a means to “predict” an intersex infant’s gender. Decisions to surgically alter genitalia or reproductive anatomy often revolve around future adult penetrative sex ability.
Intersex people are not rare, but community can be
Intersex individuals constitute up to 1.7 percent of the population, yet local intersex communities remain scarce. Many intersex individuals are told by medical providers that they are unique, and having diverse sex traits is a rare “medical problem” to be concealed. While some LGBTQ+ organizations overlook or exclude intersex individuals, resources for intersex representation are becoming increasingly accessible.
Intersex people thrive
Intersex individuals excel in various fields, from activism and science to art and politics. We hail from diverse backgrounds, and our community reflects this diversity. Recent years have witnessed a surge in coming out stories, a trend we hope will continue as our movement grows.
You can show your solidarity this year, and every day
Supporting intersex awareness and rights doesn’t stop at Intersex Awareness Day. Allies can engage year-round by educating themselves about intersex surgeries and autonomy, reading intersex literature or watching relevant films, adopting gender-neutral language for body parts, distributing informational materials at workplaces, contributing to intersex-led organizations, and participating in local protests or demonstrations. Online, allies can show support by using the hashtag #IntersexAwarenessDay and amplifying the voices of intersex individuals on social media platforms.