The Intersex Community Is Fighting for Every Body

8 minute read
Roth Weigel is an activist working to improve the landscape for marginalized populations through her firm, Intrepida Strategy. A human rights commissioner for the City of Austin and member of Collective Speakers bureau, her work is featured in the film Every Body, directed by Academy-Award nominated filmmaker Julie Cohen, and her forthcoming memoir Inverse Cowgirl

When I first moved to Texas in 2016, I never expected it’d be here that I’d come out as intersex. I certainly never thought that would’ve happened in a Senate hearing, divulging details about my body and medical history most of my family didn’t even know to a bunch of conservative legislators. I told them that I was born with physical traits—external sex anatomy, internal reproductive organs, hormones, and chromosomes—that didn’t fit neatly into the binary “male” or “female” options on a birth certificate. And I shared that very personal fact with a government chamber full of total strangers because the “bathroom bill” they were pushing not only discriminated against the trans community, but also completely ignored the existence of intersex folks like me.

The day that bill died in June 2017, something new was born within me: The confidence to share my truth with the world and the conviction that the whole world needed to hear my story—our story. Since then, I haven’t stopped showing up (at the State Capitol and on stages across the globe) to raise awareness of the inequity we face. Similarly to what the trans community has experienced, though, increased visibility can be a double-edged sword. At first, only the wrong people listened to me—or the right ones listened, those tasked with serving their constituents, but they intentionally received and parroted the wrong message.

As I shouted about the involuntary surgery that sterilized me, an operation to remove the internal testes that didn’t “match” my external “female” genitalia, Gov. Greg Abbott and the former Texas Attorney General heard me loud and clear. They then translated the alarm bell I was sounding for intersex kids into a battle cry against trans youth; they used arguments of forced sterilizations and the neglect of gender-nonconforming children not to help me and others like me, but rather to hurt people I also care about. Despite hearing my desperate calls for a life raft—one of affirmative consent, so that all human beings might decide for themselves the form their body might take—they instead unleashed a deluge of misinformation that has since swept the nation.

Read More: What Trans Visibility Gave Me

The same bills that seek to block gender affirming care for transgender Americans, cropping up in state legislatures across the country, contain loopholes that allow the same surgeries and hormones to be forced onto intersex children without our having any say in the matter. As journalist Carter Sherman wrote in their piece for VICE, “Republicans have compared gender-affirming health care to child abuse and Nazi war crimes. But they’re more than happy to let doctors perform surgeries on intersex children.”

This all proves that the authors of these bills seek not to shield children from harm but rather to eradicate those that don’t fit their cis-heteropatriarchal paradigm. Texas Republicans took my plea for protection and warped it into propaganda—and it’s time to set the record straight.

I’ll start by clarifying here what should seem obvious: Both trans and intersex kids must be at the decision-making table when determining the course of our futures. And we deserve to live freely as who we are in any and all spaces—from restrooms to sports pitches. But despite comprising roughly 2% of the world’s population, intersex people are usually left out of any conversation on LGBTQIA+ rights. Even media coverage of anti-trans bills that also target our bodies remove any evidence of the identities we were born with and the intersex community at large. We are, quite literally, erased from the coverage of our own erasure.

This exclusion is, unfortunately, something we’ve long been accustomed to. Our identity is stamped out the moment we leave the birth canal and bolstered each day thereafter, as intersex people are left off most forms for data-collection or even a drop-down menu to purchase a plane ticket. This calculated effort to shove us into one of the categories society is more comfortable with is reinforced through medically unnecessary and non-consensual surgeries that force our bodies to fit neater onto a piece of paper, rather than editing the piece of paper to accommodate the reality of human diversity.

We are told it’s easier to hide our truth from the world than it would be to change the hearts and minds of those who fear difference; the box we’re pushed into then takes the form of a closet that many of us never find our way out of. Most of us reside deep in the shadows of shame and stigma, until there’s a critical mass of us living “out” and it feels safe for the rest of us to do so, too.

But we are very much here—everywhere—including Texas. Our stories matter, regardless of whether or not our “representatives” acknowledge them. And while we have been playing defense against a hateful, misinformed agenda, our offensive push for rights and recognition of the truth is stronger.

For example, as an intersex person, I have not been able to find endocrinologists, gynecologists, or even primary care doctors who can meet my needs since moving here. So in 2023, Texas Health Action and I partnered to launch the nation’s first ever competent care for intersex adults through their Kind Clinics in cities across the state. Given that one of the patients we surveyed while crafting this care-offering routinely flies to Japan to access a proficient provider, this is life-changing support for our community.

Beyond overhauling a cluster of clinics, we’ve been working to systematically improve care outside the realm of sexual wellness. The Austin City Council passed a local resolution to craft a public education campaign for not just doctors of intersex kids, but also for parents to work with their own children and make better-informed decisions than my parents were equipped to make. The City Council is also working on a budget amendment to fund it later this summer. (This policy is based on one that passed in New York City and has since scaled statewide.)

And that’s just in Texas. In 2022, President Biden’s historic executive order last Pride Month committed to end conversion therapy; it also mandated a year-long report by Health and Human Services to identify “promising practices for advancing health equity for intersex individuals”. This was the first ever federal policy to formally address and endeavor to assist our community.

From national politics to international media, 2023 has seen a swell of support that might help wash away the misinformation that has drowned out our voices and buoy our identity into the mainstream. A documentary, Every Body, chronicling our movement’s struggle over the past three decades, has just released—the first movie ever highlighting intersex existence to achieve nationwide theatrical distribution.

One of the film’s subjects, River Gallo, explains that media representation is necessary to help establish our existence in the common cultural vernacular, which will pave a pathway to enacting the sweeping legislative changes needed to keep our community safe from harm. But lifting our voices into media prominence isn’t enough to keep us safe. Sean Saifa Wall, another subject of the film, reminded me that the counter-efforts targeting intersex and trans kids are waged by a well-coordinated network of groups promoting “gender exploratory therapy”—a new form of conversion therapy, focused on enforcing a “norm” around gender and sex rather than sexuality. This means that, in addition to representation, we also can’t give up our own political advocacy efforts until real policies are in place to protect us.

In 1993, Cheryl Chase founded the Intersex Society of North America to “end shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgeries for people born with an anatomy that someone decided is not standard for male or female.” Thirty years after our movement took shape, our message is being amplified and the shame and misinformation that obscured the truth about our community is beginning to dissipate. In the struggle to achieve body autonomy for all, the intersex community demands that everybody deserves the right to decide what’s right for their own body, intersex people included. If our current trajectory continues—and if we pick up enough allies along the way—I have hope we might celebrate that reality together in a future Pride month to come.

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