New Zealand Law Society - Important day to celebrate who I am

Important day to celebrate who I am

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In a 2015 Expert Meeting of the United Nations regarding intersex, the UN High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein stated that:

"Too many people assume, without really thinking about it, that everyone can be fitted into two distinct and mutually exclusive categories: male and female … Unfortunately the myth that all human beings belong to two distinct and separate sexes is deep-rooted, and it contributes to the stigma, and even the taboo, attached to being intersex."

photo of Rogena Sterling
Rogena Sterling

October 26 is Intersex Awareness Day. It is an important day for me to celebrate who I am.

After only making sense of myself as an intersex person in my mid-thirties, it created some difficulties and challenges, but I have never felt more peace inside and comfortable than after accepting and living as my intersex identity.

Intersex Awareness Day has a dual focus. First, it is a day to raise awareness of intersex; and second it is about reclaiming intersex as part of sex identity that has been taken from us over the many centuries.

Intersex people's lives are predominantly shrouded in secrecy and shame. This day enables awareness of intersex people who remain invisible and often unaware themselves. On celebrating this day, I aim to enlighten my fellows of the legal profession on both what intersex is, and the issues we face.

So what is intersex? Intersex is an umbrella term of more than 30 variations (some of the common ones are listed at the end of the article). Intersex people have biological diversity of chromosomal, hormonal, and anatomical sexual features that are neither exclusively male nor female, but are typical of both at once or not clearly defined as either.

Their features can also manifest themselves in secondary sexual characteristics such as muscle mass, hair distribution, breasts and stature as examples. Although there are no statistics, in surveying medical literature, an often quoted number is 1.7% of live births. However, once cryptorchidism and hypospadias are added, the average increases by another 1.8% to 3.5%.

The history of intersex illustrates the historical struggles of sex, its nature, roles, and what sex can, should, and must mean. Through this struggle, intersex has moved between various states of mythical creatures, social abnormalities, and to medical pathologies.

Currently, the vast majority of people who are intersex undergo sex-normalising treatment as an infant or child to maintain a sex binary of male and female.

Since 2012, the UN Committee on Torture has stated that such treatment without the consent of the individual is torture. Yet this continues on a regular basis in New Zealand. This is a key human rights violation that affects the very integrity of one's being. It causes physical and psychological impacts with life-long consequences including sterilisation, severe scarring, infections of the urinary tract, reduced or complete loss of sexual sensation, removal of natural hormones, dependency on medication, and a deep sense of violation of their person.

As well as that, intersex people face other serious human rights violations. Another violation is infanticide.

In many countries, like New Zealand, birth registration and obtaining identity documents do not recognise intersex. In addition to that is widespread discrimination in education, employment, health, sports and accessing public services. Moreover, we are not even counted in statistics, but forced into imposed categories of male or female. All of these are rarely discussed, let alone investigated or prosecuted.

Intersex people, like myself, need the support of my fellows in the legal profession – the defenders of justice and human rights.

We need space to exist biologically without individually unconsented unnecessary medical treatment, but we also need the ability to determine our identity whether it be expressed as male, female, both or neither. I am sure we all agree that sex discrimination is not acceptable in New Zealand. This includes intersex.

Some of the more common intersex variations are: 5-alpha Reductase Deficiency, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), Aphallia, Clitoromegaly (large clitoris), Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), Gonadal Dysgenesis (partial and complete), Hypospadias/Epispadias, Klinefelter Syndrome, Micropenis, Mosaicism involving 'sex' chromosomes, MRKH (mullerian agenesis; vaginal agenesis; congenital absence of vagina), Ova-Testes (formerly 'true hermaphroditism'), Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (PAIS), Progestin Induced Virilisation, Swyer Syndrome, Turner Syndrome.

Rogena Sterling is currently studying towards a PhD in law at Waikato University, having completed both an LLB and an LLM. The topic of Rogena's doctoral thesis is Intersex and Identity within International Human Rights Law. Rogena plans to use the PhD to provide a foundation for better development of intersexed rights and also plans to gain admission to the bar. The ultimate goal is to be part of expanding transgender and intersex rights law and allow the existence of the intersexed identity.

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