uninformed consent

Why Are Parents Of Intersex Children Choosing Their Kids’ Gender So Early On?

When we hear about an adult woman changing her sex to become a man, we generally label that person as transgender. But what about an adult woman who was never supposed to be a lady? That’s the situation Jim Bruce (pictured) found himself in after being born intersex, with ambiguous genitals, and doctors and his parents making the decision to surgically remove his external organs and raise him as a girl.

Growing up, Bruce always knew something was up, but it wasn’t until he sought his medical records at age 19 did he learn the truth about his intersex birth. From there, he had surgery to remove his breasts and began hormone therapy to transition into a man. And he’s using his story, and his work with Advocates for Informed Choice, to raise serious questions about the harm that can be done about making decisions about what to do with intersex children so early in life. ABC News relays:

“It wasn’t that long ago, and parents were often led to believe they were doing the best thing for the child,” he said. “They still don’t know anything now, and they don’t do any follow up.” At first he blamed his parents, but later realized, “they were only kids, 27 and 29, and they were scared. I never had any doubt my parents loved me very much.”

As little as a decade ago, the medical community thought of gender as a slate that could be erased and then redrawn. Today, gender identification is still not well understood, but experts say that when sex cannot be determined, it’s better to use the best available information to assign gender, then to wait and monitor the child’s psychological and physical development before undertaking surgery, if at all. Waiting until puberty also allows the child to participate in the decision. “Our chromosomes don’t tell us who we are,” said Dr. Arlene Baratz, a Pittsburgh breast radiologist who has two intersex daughters. “We expect XX is pink and a girl and XY is blue and a boy, but we know from children with gender identity conditions that is not always the case, even when their bodies are perfectly typical. Today, we anticipate how the child will feel as an adult and what they feel inside,” said Baratz. “That is called gender identity and the gender role is how we live in society as a man or a woman. So gender assignment is aimed at putting gender identity and role in sync with each other as the child grows older.”

What’s so bad about waiting for the child to develop in puberty before making a decision about his sex? Nothing, really, aside from the societal pressure the parents will feel (to which I say: yeah, so?) and the logistical decisions, like choosing which bathrooms a child will use at school.

And while doctors can often be quite accurate about which gender an intersex child will grow up to identify with, they can’t always be sure. Which means a drastic surgery as a baby turns into an entire adolescence being raised in the wrong body and possibly an adulthood of depression and painful decisions. If waiting a few years can avoid all that, well, that sounds reasonable.