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.

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  • merkin

    oh c’mon how naive can you be? Right or wrong, our society is totally conditioned for a male/female dichotomy. Can you imagine being an intersexed 10-year-old with an indeterminate gender? The bullying, the questions, the confusion? It would cause terrible damage to a kids pysche. There’s no perfect solution to handling a child thats been born intersexed, but I’d want my parents to do exactly what this guy’s did. If gender is a construct anyway, why does it matter what gender you were “assigned” by doctors or your folks? Live your life the way you want and don’t look to blame anyone.

  • missanthrope

    Merkin, are you intersex? If not, then you have no idea about how intersex people feel and it’s not up to you, or anybody else decide what’s best for them, that’s egotism of the worst kind.

    Do let’s take your consistent and ridiculous propositions apart:

    “oh c’mon how naive can you be? Right or wrong, our society is totally conditioned for a male/female dichotomy.”

    You could as easily as well argue that since most people are straight, then right or wrong gay people should try to act straight in order to conform.

    “Can you imagine being an intersexed 10-year-old with an indeterminate gender? The bullying, the questions, the confusion?”

    That’s a problem with bullys, not intersex childern, you’re addressing the target of bullying instead of the wrongness of bullying itself. That’s blaming the victim and it’s wrong.

    “It would cause terrible damage to a kids pysche.”

    You seem to have no regard for the right of intersex people to control their bodies. So your declared regard for the kids psyche seems disingenious since you have no respect for their basic human rights. That’s revolting.

    “There’s no perfect solution to handling a child thats been born intersexed, but I’d want my parents to do exactly what this guy’s did.”

    But you weren’t, so your hypothetical speculation isn’t really the equal of an intersex person’s point of view, it’s their lives, not yours.

    “If gender is a construct anyway, why does it matter what gender you were “assigned” by doctors or your folks?”

    Strawman argument, nobody said that gender is construct, and gender and biological sex are two different things anyway, so your confusing the two.

    “Live your life the way you want and don’t look to blame anyone.”

    Who, you mean doctors and parents who coercively alter your body against your wishes? I mean, if you went into surgery to get your appendix out and when you woke up with not only your appendix out but with both of your legs amputated, you wouldn’t be angry or blame the doctors who cut off your legs for no legitimate reason and against your will? How can anyone take that seriously?

  • michael

    Missanthrope chill he’s kinda right and in your anger you misunderstood some points I think.

    Don’t think he blammed the victim just pointed out that bullies will always exist and that the kid who goes to both bathrooms will be picked on and kdis have no filter they ask questions and do attack what’s wierd.

    He never said he didn’t care about they’re rights but by the time the choice is to be made they’ll have suffered some troubles and alot of questions.

    This situation is similar to someone who is uncoscious you have are given the choice between cutting off they’re leg or keeping it and leave them with a muilated limb it’s in your hands and you have a 50/50 chance so I say they should do as they wish and work out the problems later because you have a big chance of being screwed either way.

  • Rikard

    it is unlikely the child and their parents would not have a pretty good idea by age 3-5. a kid is going to be expressing themselves and making their path pretty clear by then. at which point decisions about surgery can be planned for an appropriate time. a kid who anticipates eventual surgery for their heart defect, or kidney transplant has stress, but understands how they are different. they expect their medical problem to be corrected and be more like everyone else. the tragic element to this story is that no one has followed up with the altered babies to see if the decisions made in infancy were soundly reasoned.

  • Evan

    @merkin: Picking a social gender is one thing. Surgical alteration is a completely different thing.

    Are you aware of how extremely primitive the surgical procedures done nonconsensually on intersex infants are? Leave aside the fact that they’re cutting away healthy tissue for no reason and seriously impairing the child’s chances of being able to live normally as male if he ends up identifying as a boy. Even intersex kids who do identify as girls have good reason to be angry about the surgery, because it stands a very high chance of depriving them irrevocably of sexual sensation. Many intersex people who received “corrective” surgery as infants are anorgasmic or suffer debilitating pain with intercourse.

    You would not have wanted your parents to do what this guy’s did. Surgically-feminized intersex boys are actually worse off when it comes to sexual function and appearance than are FTM transsexuals.

    As for gender being a construct – gender roles and gendered behaviour are socially constructed, but it’s very clear there’s a strong biological component to gender/sex identity.

  • Danielle

    I’m going to speak as the resident intersexual, here. Merkin, since you obviously know nothing of what you’re talking about, perhaps you should lean close to your computer screen and read very, very carefully.

    I was born in a Naval hospital in the early 1980’s. In those days, John Money’s crackpot ideologies were fresh on the minds of obstetricians and urologists concerning “accidents” that might happen to young children, especially intersexed children. You add on top of that the “plausible deniability” that the military is infamous for and you get me. My parents were never informed of my condition. Taking into consideration the external structures and the fact that males are more highly valued in military families, the doctors set to work. Without too many graphic details, they decided they were going to take a cauterizing iron, press my labia together, and solder me shut. If you can’t call that barbaric, I don’t know what else really could be.

    They legally lied on my medical paperwork and buried all the evidence they could. Even a pelvic MRI when I was twelve (due to an unrelated injury) was buried without explanation. Gender roles were strictly enforced due to the conservative viewpoints my step-father was raised with. I perpetually felt like a fish out of water. Plainly put: my childhood was worse than the worst level of Hell Dante ever envisioned.

    Would you throw your daughter into Gym class with the wolves we all know as teenage boys? No? Well, then, why was it okay to do that to me?

    I was bullied as a kid because I was never “man enough”. I could never handle confrontation very well, not with the guys. I’d usually end up crying and running… to which they responded by chasing me down and beating the crap out of me. It wasn’t just feminine mannerisms and the way I conducted myself physically that gave them some sort of unspoken “pass” to torment and abuse me. I’ve always been short, my shoulders narrow, my hips lower than the average man’s (and a bit wider), and my knees point inward. The real “freak show” was puberty where I ended up some sort of confused androgynous kid with no clue as to why. The point is that the blame of bullying should NEVER be on the victim whose only crime is trying to figure out “WTF is wrong with me?”, but rather the jerk-off who says “there’s something wrong with that kid, let’s hurt them!”.

    It wasn’t until I was 22 and I was seeking hormone therapy for Gender Identity Dysphoria that I even learned about what had happened to me. Of all the mixed emotions, the ones I felt the strongest were betrayal and deceit.

    The sad reality is that I am not the only resident of this twisted level of Hell. Nearly every single intersexual for the last 40 years has gone through something similar with the same general result: childhood can sometimes be trying, but it’s exponentially worse when you’re intersexed because of that assumed dichotomy society lays claim to and condones no substitutions. Of all that have been operated on, NONE have stated they were pleased with the results and accepted the choice made for them at such a young age. Are you aware of any other program or treatment method with an effective 0% success rate that doctors still use, other than “corrective surgery” performed on intersexed children every day? I don’t. We need to stop it, already.

    Consider yourself lucky, Merkin, that you will never have to experience any of this. At the same time, do not advocate for something you are entirely ignorant of the consequences for.

  • Shannon1981

    @Danielle: What a horrific story, and so well said. Everyone needs to read that.

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