Allying Intersex People

By Thuli Mjwara, IAM Process Coordinator

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives”. – Audre Lorde

During Apartheid, the liberation movement saw the support, sacrifice and advocacy of all, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race and class. The liberation movement was diverse, yet the unifying call for action was ‘Equality for all’. After South Africa held its first democratic election in 1994 all South Africans celebrated freedom. Yet almost 25 years later there are still those who have been left behind.

IAM’s stated mission is to catalyse faith communities to recognize and celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) people in Africa. As IAM approaches its 25th anniversary, we reflect on our work and ask ourselves the question, “are we truly inclusive and affirming of ALL?”

While turning the spotlight on our internal process, our team and our programmes, we’ve noted that a lot of our work has been done in a binary. This isn’t surprising: mainline churches (and heteronormativity as an ideological life-system more broadly) works within binaries; male/female, straight/gay. Heteronormativity’s baptism of lesbian and gay relationship as same-sex love or same-sex unions is case in point of the binary system. IAM has worked for a long time within this binary.

While we know that our work that contributed to life-affirming conversations for gay and lesbian persons, we acknowledge that we might not have contributed to bisexual, transdiverse, queer and intersex inclusion. In creating a space of inclusivity, there is a need for our engagements and programs to be intentional in the inclusion of those bodies that have been left out of the dialogue process, namely transdiverse, intersex and bisexual persons.

Bodies that have constantly been silenced and cornered to invisibility is those of Intersex people.

According to the Intersex Society of North America, Intersex is defined as “… a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” The United Nations Free and Equal campaign tells us that up to 1.7% of the world’s population is intersex, which is nearly two million babies born with intersex characteristics each year, and there can be up to 40 different congenital variations.

Whilst attending a Pan-African conference, I was fortunate to engage with an intersex activist who shared her experiences. This opportunity gave me a space to reflect on the privilege that our bodies carry when they are found to conform to sex binaries. This privilege is the ability to be included in societal perceptions of ‘normality’ and not question if anyone is left out of dialogues. Organizations working within the LGBTIQA spectrum often offer few to no services to intersex people. There is a need for a conscious choice to provide platforms for intersex people to speak their truth, to share their challenges, and to be heard. In an article in the Daily Maverick, Dimakatso Sebidi shared the intrusive experience of family members accompanying her to a toilet when she was young and asking that she pulls her pants down so they can see her ambiguous genetalia. She underwent a series of gender reassignment surgeries as doctors were ‘remedying’ her being born intersex. This is just one story but, within many narratives shared by countless intersex persons. There are far too many stories of childhood gender reassignment surgeries followed by a lifetime of hormonal treatment, the lack of access to their own medical records and the pain of not being given an opportunity to make their own decisions about their own bodies. To make sure these and other stories are included in the narrative, all of us must question our level of inclusiveness within the LGBTQIA space. There is a need to engage with intersex organizations, intersex people and families and question how we can be true allies to the intersex movement.

As Audre Lord states, there is no “single issue struggle”. In working within the intersections of our lived realities, we need to ask the Intersex community what it looks like to be an ally? How can we open our spaces for conscious engagement, allowing them to lead us as opposed to us speaking on their behalf? Intersex South Africa is an organization based in in Johannesburg and they provide trainings, materials and support on Intersex lived realities. I encourage us all to reach out and connect with them not only to celebrate Global Intersex Day on the 26th October 2019, but to form authentic relationships that allow for the voices of Intersex persons to be visible, strengthened and amplified.