Some notes on intersex related to the Leveson Inquiry, Wednesday 8th February 2012

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WE at Organisation Intersex InternationalOII – wish to express our gratitude to Trans Media WatchTMW – and Helen Belcher in particular for including intersex in their written submission and Helen’s presentation to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press in the United Kingdom. Putting oneself into the public eye and in the firing line of the British press is no small thing and demands a very great deal of courage. 

The Leveson Inquiry: Wednesday 8 February 2012, Afternoon session - click to go to this web page.

We also wish to thank Helen Belcher for the unprecedented act of mentioning the word intersex eight – eight! – times during her testimony on Wednesday February 8 2012.

The British press is unwittingly collaborating in the silencing, exclusion and erasure – SEE – of intersex people. SEE is a major part of the mechanism of medicine’s and society’s power and control over intersex bodies and lives. We hope that members of the press take notice of Ms Belcher’s repeated use of the word intersex and pick up on the very real possibility of a story there.

Some notes about intersex language and concepts expressed in the Leveson Inquiry

The Guardian’s commentary quotes Helen Belcher thus:

Intersex is where the physical biology of a person has aspects of both genders, Belcher says.

In reality Helen said this:

Intersex is where the physical biology is in between or has aspects of both genders.

Intersex is indeed to do biology which is by definition physical, but it is not “in between or has aspects of both genders”. Gender is the social roles commonly associated with a given sex. Gender is social, behavioural, and sex is biological, physical.

Government and media confusion about sex and gender

The press and government in the UK seem perennially confused about the difference between behaviour and biology, though. The starkest example of such confusion in the media is when they declare that someone was “born a man”. Nobody is “born a man” or “born a woman” – in reality we are born male, female, both or neither, as infants and not fully-grown men or women. We may eventually come to take on the social role of man or woman but which one is by no means guaranteed.

The best illustration of the UK government’s confusion between sex and gender lies in the Equality Act 2010 and its description of sex:

11 Sex

In relation to the protected characteristic of sex—

(a) a reference to a person who has a particular protected characteristic is a reference to a man or to a woman;

(b) a reference to persons who share a protected characteristic is a reference to persons of the same sex.

Item (a) should refer to “a male or to a female” given that “a man or to a woman” refers to genders.

We strongly recommend that the UK government corrects this definition from a mash-up of sex with gender to sex alone, and that they add intersex here, defining being intersex as an aspect of sex and thus of biology. The government would be wise to add gender as a separate protected attribute so that they can protect the great many transgender people and others who are of non-binary genders and gender expressions who are not protected under the attribute of “gender reassignment” which appears intended only to apply to transsexual people as indeed is implied by the attribute itself.

We also wish to remind the government that intersex people, in common with the rest of LGBTI, are first and foremost discriminated against by virtue of homophobia. In the case of intersex, that discrimination often starts before or at birth and continues for all of life. Intersex fetuses are now being tested for biological variations such as CAH, XXY and AIS and aborted. The genitals of intersex newborns are being cut up to make them cosmetically resemble those of non-intersex newborns.

Another mash-up – gender replaces sex under the PCC

In other twist, sex has been “replaced” by gender in the Press Complaints Commission’s Editor’s Code of Practice:

12 Discrimination

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Bizarre indeed. According to the following statement of the 8th February, it seems that gender replaced sex under the erroneous belief that gender is somehow a replacement for or superset of sex or somehow “widens” the meaning of sex:

“It has decided that the word ‘gender’ will replace ‘sex’ in subclause 12(1), thus widening its scope to include transgender individuals.”

Believing that something is so does not make it so. It may be appropriate for the word gender to be used in order to “include transgender individuals” but by removing the word sex the PCC has also removed the possibility of inclusion under its code for intersex people unless they are somehow mistakenly believed to be transgender. That may be useful in a small number of cases but not for intersex people in general.

Compounding the injury at the GEO

The Press Complaints Commission’s decision appears to be aligned with attitudes towards intersex at the Government Equalities OfficeGEO.

In mid-2010 UK Greens MEP Keith Taylor wrote to Rt Hon Theresa May MP, expressing his concern at the exclusion of intersex people from the Equalities Act 2010. Minister for Equalities Lynne Featherstone MP finally replied at the beginning of November 2010. We have commented on this exchange of letters elsewhere and note that despite the statement that “the Transgender Action Plan will be an ideal opportunity for intersex people and interested parties to let us know their views” that did not actually occur as intersex people needed due to the nature of the GEO consultation process and surveys directed at the transgender and not the intersex community.

Further, the assertion in Minister Featherstone’s letter that “discrimination is [not] taking place against this group of people [intersex]” is questionable given what intersex people themselves tell us occurs in the UK. The implication is that the consultation process was flawed in its intersex inclusion or lack of it as has occurred subsequently.

There is no mention of intersex in the Transgender Action Plan.

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