Saturday, September 2, 2017

Conservative Evangelicals Embrace Intersex Genital Mutilation

Something frightening happened this week that may have a profound impact on intersex infants and the intersex community. In the midst of the constant bombardment of news of political and natural disasters that is the state of things in the U.S. today, you may not have even noticed. But you need to know about it. A large group of conservative evangelical Christian leaders signed and released a document they call the "Nashville Statement." To the extent that it got media attention, it has mostly been because it says true Christians must oppose same-gender love and marriage, and refuse to acknowledge gender transition or even that gender identity exists.

But while morally repugnant--including to a huge number of Christians--there's nothing new in that part of the Nashville Statement. We knew conservative evangelical activists oppose LGBT rights. What's new is that this declaration officially puts intersex advocacy in the very same boat. Intersex advocates are sinners now, officially, they say. And this is going to infuse a blast of energy into attacking us politically that our small but growing movement has not experienced before.

So we need to be prepared. We need the help of allies. And we need to understand what this Nashville Statement says.

What is the Nashville Statement?

The Nashville Statement was written by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a group that has been around since the 1980s. Its original focus was on fighting feminism, but it expanded its mission to opposing same-gender marriage, and then to denying recognition of trans identities and gender transition. The Nashville Statement is a manifesto, and the 187 conservative evangelical leaders who initially signed it intend it to serve a number of purposes. One is stop the spread of tolerance in their own followers by declaring acceptance of sex/gender/sexual variance to be a sin in itself. Another is to create a document to use in legal battles seeking to oppose LGBT+ rights by making claims to a "religious freedom" to discriminate. And a third is to try to frame variance in sex, gender, and sexuality for the public as disorder. It is, they say, on one level an issue of physical or mental disorder. But more importantly, they claim, it is evidence of a general social disorder, an international shared sickness, based in rejection of God's order of creation.

It's in this context that the Nashville Statement frames intersex status, calling it a "physical disorder of sex development." And as an intersex advocate, I find this both frightening and fascinating, because it is adopting what we call "DSD" language, and doing this explicitly to attack intersex advocacy.

What is "DSD" Language and Why Does it Matter?

Prior to 2005, the term "intersex" was used by medical practitioners and by people born sex-variant alike. But late in that year, the term "Disorders of Sex Development" or "DSD" burst onto the scene. It came out of a big conference that involved medical professionals and some intersex advocates. The goal of the intersex participants was to stop doctors from rushing to cut up the genitals of babies born sex-variant. And, ironically, it was at the urging of some intersex advocates that one of the things that came out of this big conference at the last moment was the statement that people should stop using the term "intersex," and start using "Disorders of Sex Development" instead.

Those intersex individuals who helped introduce DSD language thought that it would slow down the rush to surgery. Their reasoning was that the term "intersex" evokes sexual perversion, queerness, and radicalism. But "DSD" just sounds like any other medical condition, and so, they hoped, would cease freaking out parents and doctors. Instead of stigma and shame, there would be medical conditions that could be treated calmly, deliberately, and with the minimum intervention necessary. Sex-variant people would be empowered in interactions with medical professionals, and sex-variant advocates seen as reasonable people. Those were good intentions.

But that's not how things worked out.

In fact, what happened is that most out intersex advocates quickly rejected DSD language as repugnant. We didn't see ourselves as "disordered." We saw the problems we faced as socially and medically produced. The forced genital surgeries and other treatments imposed on us without our consent didn't "save" us, they caused us terrible suffering. They constituted intersex genital mutilation. Our problem did not lie in our sex-variant bodies, it lay in a society that framed such bodies as horrifying rather than just an eternal part of natural human diversity.

But you know who loved DSD language, and rushed to embrace it? The medical community, which used it to justify continuing, even intensifying interventions into sex-variant bodies. Disorders, after all, should be cured! Oh, and many parents of intersex kids quickly adopted DSD language, too, after hearing it from doctors, because it supported their desire to have their children "cured" and become "normal." These parents and doctors alike had a shared vision of intersex children being transformed into "regular" girls or boys who would gratefully grow up to be genderconforming and happily, heterosexually, married.

So in 2017 what we find is that in the U.S., we have two competing terms being used to describe those born sex-variant. Advocates call ourselves intersex, as do human rights organizations supporting us, while the medical community and those seeking medical "cures" use DSD language.

Right under the surface of the embracing of DSD language by doctors and many parents has been a great deal of homophobia and transphobia, though that has remained a subtext. It is that subtext that we now see revealed in the Nashville Statement, as conservative evangelical Christians have climbed aboard the DSD boat. Let's look at the Nashville Statement language to see how they deploy the language of disorder, and why.

The Nashville Statement and What it Means

I'll give you the most relevant text from the Nashville Statement for you to read yourself, but I have to warn you--it's written in evangelicanese. What the words mean for the conservative evangelical Christian activists who wrote them may not be at all apparent from the words as they are understood in ordinary English. So what I'll do is give you the text, and then a translation into everyday English.

Here is the most relevant language, from Articles IV-VI of the Nashville Statement:
  • Article IV: We affirm that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.
  • Article V: We affirm that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female. We deny that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.
  • Article VI: We affirm that those born with a physical disorder of sex development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers. They are acknowledged by our Lord Jesus in his words about “eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.” With all others they are welcome as faithful followers of Jesus Christ and should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known. We deny that ambiguities related to a person’s biological sex render one incapable of living a fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ.
Translated from the evangelicalese, this says something like this: "God requires binary sex and gender, and forbids homosexuality or gender transition. LGBT people are all sinners. Being born intersex is not the individual's fault, so it's not a sin. It is, however, a medical disorder, and if a doctor can be found who will assign an intersex child male or female, then infant genital surgery must be embraced, and the individual must identify with their assigned sex and as heterosexual or they become a sinner."

Oh, and thus under Article X, which compels rejection of sex, gender and sexual variance, parents who fail to seek out intersex genital mutilation for their children, or who accept it if their intersex children do not identify as straight members of their medically-assigned binary sex--those parents are committing a terrible sin and cannot call themselves Christians.

Intersex Advocacy as Sin

What the Nashville Statement reveals is that intersex advocacy is now fully on the radar of conservative evangelicals, who oppose it.

The main goal of intersex advocacy is to stop doctors from being allowed to impose unconsented-to sex change surgeries on babies. Our society would never allow this for the endosex babies it frames as "normal," and should not allow it in the case of intersex ones. Medical interventions aimed at changing the sex characteristics of someone's body should only be performed if a fully informed, sufficiently mature individual requests them of their own will. (Yes, of course, if an infant has a functional impairment that endangers their physical health, parents should be able to consent to medical treatment limited to fixing that impairment--but the vast majority of intersex genital surgeries are performed without the child having any functional problem.)

After this core priority, the goal of intersex advocacy is to ensure intersex children can grow up in a family, community and medical regime that treat intersex bodies and healthy and beautiful. We want to ensure intersex children full freedom to explore and assert their own gender identity, whatever it may be. We want them to have access to any medical interventions they mature to desire, but to make decisions about any medical interventions completely free from coercion, in a context where choosing to access no interventions is fully supported.

The Nashville Statement calls this sin.

According to the Nashville Statement, part of submitting to the will of God means, in the case of intersex individuals, submission to the will of doctors. Doctors are treated as agents of God's will in determining a binary sex to which to assign a poor benighted, disordered intersex infant. It may seem quite strange for religious authorities to declare medical authorities diviners of God's will, but in fact this partnership between religion and science in enforcing binary sex/gender ideology has been around for centuries--you can read my prior post discussing that here. It was perhaps at its height during the heyday of European colonialism, when Christian missionaries partnered with European scientists and doctors to pathologize and dismantle nonbinary sex categories among colonized peoples. But there's an ongoing religious and scientific partnership in proselytizing the ideology of "natural sex," and we see that very clearly in the case of the Nashville Statement.

Here, we see conservative evangelical leaders joining doctors in framing intersex as disorder. Intersex people must be medically assigned to a binary sex and have their bodies altered to conform to it as much as possible. To object to this is now not simply to fail to respect medical authority-- it is now proclaimed to violate God's will.

What Does This Mean for Intersex Advocacy?

I believe that what this means for us is that a storm is coming. In the past, conservative evangelical opposition to variance in sex, gender and sexuality hasn't focused on intersex advocates. We've been dismissed as pitiful, freakish, and rare, and conservative religious approaches to us haven't been consolidated.

Well, now they have been. And in terms of advocacy, for me the main takeaway here is that the Nashville Statement answers the questions of whether intersex advocacy should be making common cause with LGBT advocates.

For many years, intersex communities have been divided over whether we should be placed "under the LGBT+ umbrella." Intersex support groups where parents of intersex children have had a strong voice have tended both to embrace DSD language and resist the idea of allying with LGBT communities, because their goal has been one of assimilation. The have desired to to distance the community from people viewed as radical and queer and present intersex people (or "people with DSDs") as "normal." This tendency is likely to continue. There's a growing number of parents who have been educated by trans and intersex advocacy who oppose surgical alteration of their intersex babies' genitalia, but for the larger group that view intersexuality as a curable disorder, the Nashville Statement is actually likely to be fairly resonant.

But then there are those of us who are out intersex advocates fighting the pathologizing and mutilation of our bodies. And among us, while opinion about whether to ally with LGBT advocacy groups has been much more positive, there are still those of us who have been against it. This is not because of an assimilationist desire, but out of frustration with LGBT+ organizations that have demonstrated poor allyship. I will acknowledge that there's been a substantial amount of ally failure. Common examples include organizations that put an "I" in their group acronym (such as LGBTQIAA) without having any out intersex people in their group; treating sex variance as an abstract concept to use to advance an LGBT group's agenda without recognizing us as actual people around them who need to be understood and aided; misunderstanding intersex community needs as being primarily about respect for gender identity instead of ending IGM and other forced medical interventions; and denying that physical sex has any reality as a tactic for fighting transphobia, which makes it impossible to even articulate our mutilation and suffering.

But whether we are satisfied with how we have been treated by LGBT organizations and advocates or not, we are all in the same boat in the eyes of those who would cause us vast suffering and call it "Christian love." And because our community is most likely to be in the closet, our organizations younger and smaller, and our suffering least understood by the general public, we really really need the aid of LGBT community partners.

So: it is time for us to do a whole lot more educating--of both LGBT advocates with whom we share common cause, and of the general public. And it is time to prepare for the active opposition of conservative evangelical groups that have announced in the Nashville Statement that opposition to IGM is now right up there with advocating marriage equality or support for gender transition as acts that claim "ruin human life and dishonor God."