Wilf Stevenson on the need to legislate for those whose sex is not easily determinable at birth
It is a little known fact that as many as 1% of live births exhibit some degree of sexual ambiguity at birth, and between 0.1% and 0.2% are ambiguous enough to become the subject of specialist medical attention – regretfully including involuntary surgery.
I have tabled an amendment to the Same Sex Marriage Bill – to be moved either later tonight or early next Monday (depending on how quickly we get through other debates) – to draw attention to those born with an intersex condition. These are people whose anatomy or physiology differs from contemporary cultural expectations of what constitute typical gender.
Being intersex is not a disease, nor a ‘disorder’. It is, as those statistics suggest, a perfectly normal variation within human development. And the need to use the term is made necessary by society's insistence on maintaining a rigid classification of all human beings as ‘male’ or ‘female’.
In many ways, those with an intersex condition can be termed non-gendered. Some individuals aren’t found to have intersex anatomy until they reach the age of puberty or find themselves infertile, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.
If we take the classic stereotypes of ‘male’ and ‘female’, and consider the biological, social, gender or sexual orientation in the round, there are actually few humans who completely conform in all respects to the stereotypes. Most vary from the standard – sometimes in small details, sometimes significantly. Indeed, some commentators would consider sexuality to be a continuum, with the stereotypes at each extreme.
One major difficulty is that there’s no precise way of determining which of the two boxes someone should be placed at birth. All the available yardsticks are flawed – karyotype, gonads, secondary sexual characteristics, appearance. None of these, or any combination of them, can determine sex with absolute certainty.
If we were living in a legal jurisdiction where marriages were defined without reference to the sexual identity of the couples concerned, these complications would not occur. But the approach underlying the Same Sex Marriage Bill is based on an assumption that the sex of the participants is settled.
Labour introduced legislation which recognises the legal and official change of gender, and would allow a transsexual person to be legally married in accordance with their adopted gender identity. But those intersex people who identify as non-gendered do not always – if they are allowed to – attempt to transition, and are therefore excluded at all levels. The amendment I have tabled would specifically include in legislation, for the first time, those who identify as non-gendered.
It is time some consideration was given to this largely hidden and often overlooked minority. Otherwise, they will remain isolated yet again from the rights accorded to other, higher profile groups.
Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a Labour Peer, and a member of the Shadow BIS and DCMS teams
Published 19th June 2013