Intersex in the Media

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A lie can travel half way around the world before the truth can get it’s boots on.

Trying to convey the realities of intersex lived experience to the media is a very tough gig. Intersex people still struggle with the legacy of decades of enforced silence about our situation. A silence that has at times been filled by salacious and inaccurate descriptions of intersex that only serve to renew the pejorative ideas about us as people. The complexities of intersex variations, and the human rights angle may be the realities of intersex lives, but they are not the stuff of media headlines. The media, be it print or digital, want something far more basic.

And in the past 48hrs that’s just exactly what they have been given.

A person I will not grace by naming has been claiming to be both intersex, and in a relationship with Michael Phelps. Yes, that Michael Phelps. The Olympic swimmer with the most gold medals ever. Except for the niggling fact that it would appear that Mr Phelps doesn’t know anything about any of it, because he’s in rehab and hasn’t had any media contact since 5 October.

Now it isn’t the place of this organisation to speculate about the status of someone who claims to be intersex, but this author would just observe that serving up large slices of copied pages from the now defunct ISNA website on their facebook page as “proof” is problematic.

So OII-UK offers small thanks to Huffington PostUK for linking to this webpage in a limited effort to point readers in the direction of some factual information about intersex embodiment. It’s the only article that has even bothered to try.

Intersex continues to gain traction in the media only as a salacious portrayal of freakish nature. It seems to matter little that real intersex people continue to be damaged by these portrayals. The sensationalist publicity surrounding articles like this will move on to find another focus, but the damage done to the understanding of intersex people, and the issues they struggle with will linger for far longer.

The human rights abuses that intersex people endure are very real. That is the real story, but that doesn’t make for easy headlines of the sort that can be spun online in moments.

This is the 21st Century – a century that is well aware of it’s obligations toward human rights issues. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, a title in itself that should give everyone pause,  produced a report in 2013 that acknowledged the very serious human rights issues that intersex people encounter.

“The Special Rapporteur calls upon all States to repeal any law allowing intrusive and irreversible treatments, including forced genital-normalizing surgery, involuntary sterilization, unethical experimentation, medical display, ‘reparative therapies’ or ‘conversion therapies’, when enforced or administered without the free and informed consent of the person concerned. He also calls upon them to outlaw forced or coerced sterilization in all circumstances and provide special protection to individuals belonging to marginalized groups.”

The Australian Senate Committee has also produced a report about the Enforced and Coerced Sterlisation of Intersex People . But that isn’t nearly as newsworthy as a forty-something with a Penthouse publicist and an apparently fabricated story to sell.