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Hi is here with Ted talks daily today, communications expert Susanna TEMCO, like almost two percent of the human population, she is intersex, born with biology that doesn't fit the traditional conception of male or female bodies. In her talk from Ted London in 2019. Susanna says the world doesn't seem to know much about intersex people or really see them. Her passionate talk encourages us to think about the very real costs of prejudice against those who were born different and how trying to erase our differences feels shame.
I have a confession to make right off the bat, I don't know what you were doing at 16, but I'm a really big fan of Harry Potter and was waiting way too long to receive my letter, inviting me to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I could have gone to sixth form.
I was also waiting for an invitation to the Jedi temple or a tap on the shoulder to invite me to the X-Men.
I was that kid when I was six years old.
I got my wish.
I was taken into a doctor's office and told that I am in fact part of a group of people who are still largely invisible and misunderstood. I am intersex. That's my superpower.
For many of you in this room, it'll be the first time you've even heard the word intersex. Intersex is anatomy.
It refers to people who are born with one or more of a variation of sex characteristics. That's your genitals, your hormones, your chromosomes that fall outside of the traditional conceptions of male and female bodies.
In other words, the most basic assumption we've made about our species, what we're taught in schools, that sex is binary, just male and female is not correct.
Like most things in this world, it is much more complicated than that.
Intersex people who fall outside of this forced sex binary have always existed throughout human history, like the Wizards of Harry Potter.
We are pretty much invisible. Some of us don't even know that we are intersex like the X-Men. Some of our traits are obvious at birth and others turn up around the time when puberty is supposed to kick in. When we find out we are into sex, some of us believe we are the only ones in the world. Me, specifically, I have X Y chromosomes, which you may have understood to be typically male. I was also born with gonads instead of ovaries.
Standing here on this stage would have been my worst nightmare only five years ago. It would have been impossible. I use the metaphor of the superhuman, but really we are just like you, intersex people are thought to make up to one point seven percent of the population. That means more depending on where you are in the world. But you get the picture.
We are in front of you getting coffee. We are sat next to you on the train. We are swiping you left and right on dating apps.
So why haven't you heard of us? If we are so common, why don't you see us, how has the world responded to us?
We often think of disciplines like medicine and the law as supposedly neutral, immune to bias.
The law is reason free from passion, the doctor's Hippocratic Oath states that warmth, sympathy and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist pill.
In truth, these disciplines that touch our lives are impressive, but they are filled with our prejudices, they are not immune, just as we are not immune to the effects of that prejudice, which can be devastating.
In medicine, intersex babies who are born with ambiguous genitalia are routinely operated on without consent, without medical need, irreversibly in order to make their healthy anatomy appear more normal. This is before they've even said the first words indicated a sexuality or a gender identity. Many people are never told the truth about their intersex traits and those who are are instructed often not to tell anyone.
Secrecy is enforced and shame is a closed shadow. In the law, intersex people fall outside of categorization and more importantly, protection. This concerns the bainwol tasks. If you can imagine the number of forms you filled out that you had to check M or F on to lacking protection under any law, specifically the Gender Recognition or Equality Act. And intersex people cannot correct the sex classification they've been given at birth unless they declare they are transgender. After decades of activism, these life altering problems are starting to be addressed.
So why does this matter to those of you who aren't intersex, who don't have variations of sex characteristics? I imagine many people in this audience have in the privacy of their own bathrooms, wondered, am I labia too long, am my testicles?
And even if my penis too small, is my vagina too wide or too shallow, nothing that hurts or gets in the way just aesthetically, I mean, normal.
I imagine that many people in this audience have those small concerns, but generally go about their lives not thinking about it, these variations in our bodies, like the color of our eyes or the size of our feet, rarely affect our health materially.
To put it another way, to give you an idea of the intersex experience. What if when you were an infant, your parents or your doctors looked at your labia, your penis, your testicles and thought the healthy feeling, but they're not normal. Even before you knew what you wanted to do with them, where you want to put them.
What if they went so far as to assign you a different sex based off these measurements? And then they lied to you about what they'd done. What if these surgeries sterilized you? What if they resulted in immense pain and scarring? What if you had to take medicine for the rest of your life to replace the healthy organs they took away and you have to pay for that medicine yourself? And then every time you went to a doctor's office for a cold, you were questioned about your sex life, your gender identity, what your private parts look like.
And then more doctors and medical students were invited to add to these questions, ask you to drop your trousers or submit to an unnecessary medical exam. This is a picture of what is happening to the intersex community, people like me every day around the world.
Our community is not anti medicine or anti surgery. We are for the right to make decisions about our bodies and our lives. The current approach to intersex people stems from a now debunked academic study from a man who over 50 years ago believed that you could raise a child in any gender by changing their genitals, never telling them and reinforcing that gender over and over again. It also stems from referring to healthy intersex variations as abnormal or disordered. This makes sense if you refer to something as a disorder suggests there's a fix.
It also stems the fear and stigma of being intersex from homophobia, transphobia, sexism and ultimately our colonial past.
I am not here to say that the categories of men and women don't exist. I'm saying, like most things in this world, it is more complicated than that.
The world is complex and we can choose to see that as beautiful or we can choose to continue to deny the existence of that complexity, push people into artificial binary boxes, fix what isn't broken, and restrict our own field of vision. One of the challenges that intersex people face today is making ourselves visible and making us feel safe at the same time. By that, I mean we are appealing to the humanity of lawmakers to make us safe.
Whilst putting ourselves into the public eye, sharing our stories, trying to build community with people like us. Even when it isn't safe to do so. For parents of intersex children listening and watching, for those in the audience who may become the guardians of intersex people, I want you to know I love my life. But it has not been free of issue, especially in relation to being intersex, no life is free of issue. All coins have two sides.
On the one side, I have been humiliated in doctors offices. I have stood in front of prospective partners and felt afraid and so not good enough. I have watched other women pass me in the street and imagine the ways that they were more women than me, more human than me. I have questioned whether I have a place in this world. On the other, I have been deeply loved for everything that I am in friendship and romantically. I have learnt compassion and empathy for a wider range of society.
I have taken the time to love my body and not judge the bodies of others. I have developed a strength and a hope that would have been impossible without this particular life. The instinct to protect children is instinctive and it's admirable, but the truth is that love, acceptance and refusing to bury that child in shame will protect them more than trying to fix something that isn't broken. This is why it is in our interest to protect intersex people and make them visible for as long as societies reinforce one form of acceptable, of normal, everyone will face insecurity for being different in any way.
Simply trying to erase variation, differences, build shame. Being intersex has not materialized, the powers that I wished for as a teenager beyond being able to see where this forced sex binary harms us all. It is my belief that if intersex people can gain a quality. Can be seen, can be accepted and can be loved, then we all will, thank you.