Intersex Rights Enter the News Arena

By Rodger Streitmatter

intersexMany of us remember the days when the mainstream media paid very little attention to gay and lesbian rights. That era is long gone, with references to LGBT rights now being pervasive on news websites as well as on TV news and in newspapers and magazines.

Still exceedingly rare, however, is any mention whatsoever of intersex rights. Indeed, my guess is that there’s been so little coverage of this topic that most Americans don’t know the meaning of the term intersex.     

Because of this scarcity, a New Yorker article titled “A New Era for Intersex Rights,” which was published in late December, is significant.

The piece began with details about Jim Ambrose. When he was born in 1976, Ambrose’s sex organs were ambiguous. That is, the doctor whoJim AmbroseWhen he was born in 1976, (Jim) Ambrose’s sex organs were ambiguous. delivered him wasn’t sure if Ambrose had a large clitoris or a small penis. Because it’s easier to eliminate tissue than to add it, hospital officials decided to surgically remove the organ as well as the nearby testes.

Ambrose was then named Kristi Bruce and, for the next several years, raised as a girl.

When Ambrose was twelve, his parents began having him injected with female hormones. And at eighteen, he was preparing to undergo a vaginoplasty, the surgical procedure to reconstruct the vagina.

By this point, however, Ambrose was suffering from severe depression to the point that he was considering suicide because, as he is quoted as saying in the article, “I knew that I wasn’t a girl.”

Ambrose then began the process of securing the medical records documenting his birth. When he saw them, he learned that he’d been born with one X and one Y chromosome. He also learned that, in his words, “I was sterilized at birth—and no one ever told me.”

Ambrose then began taking testosterone shots, and he also had surgery to remove his breasts.

The New Yorker piece, after summarizing these details, went on to talk about how many people are born under circumstances similar to Ambrose’s.

Specifically, the magazine stated that one in every 1,500 to 2,000 babies is diagnosed with a disorder or difference of sexual development. It also pointed out that more precise figures are impossible to come up with, partly because it’s tough to measure degrees of physical and hormonal difference and partly because people aren’t always informed about the details of their births.

Complicating the topic is the fact that most parents whose babies are born with indeterminate genitalia follow the standard medical advice and have their child undergo surgery to conform to one or the other fixed gender category. “Traditionally, the choice has been which gender to assign to the baby,” the article stated, “not whether to put a baby through invasive surgery at all.”


This video from The Interface Project highlights the problems faced by people subjected to gender that is forced upon them at birth.   

The news hook for the New Yorker story was that the New Jersey legislature passed a bill in December that would grant citizens of the state the right to change their gender on their birth certificates without having gender-reassignment surgery. This action is considered a milestone in the evolving movement for intersex rights.

Jim Ambrose reappeared toward the end of the article. He now works at the Interface Project, a nonprofit organization sponsored by Advocates for Informed Choice. That is a legal group that champions people with intersex conditions.

The article described Ambrose as “a fellow of remarkable good humor.” It reported that he now has chest hair and, in his words, “much bigger muscles than I did before, because before I was living as female.”

Ambrose also was quoted as speaking directly to the parents of children like him, saying, “Your kid is going to want his genitals. Your kid is going to want her genitals.” With another quote, he communicated that he’s no longer angry with his parents for what they allowed to happen at his birth: “My mother regrets having my penis cut off and my testes cut out so, so much.”

The New Yorker article also concluded on a positive note. “Little by little, doctors and parents,” it reported, “are questioning, delaying and canceling cosmetic genital and gender-assignment surgeries.”

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