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LGBTQIA+ history month: Intersex People Facing Non-Consensual Surgical Interventions

LGBTQIA+ history month: Intersex People Facing Non-Consensual Surgical Interventions

February is LGBTQIA+ history month. At DIH we decided to publish 8 articles in this period that cover all the identities in this acronym – lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual/aromantic persons and other identities under +. The articles do not necessarily talk about history, they are just a short insight into some interesting facts, persons or otherwise connected to the specific sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Intersex people are more common than you think! Around 1,7 % of the population are represented by intersex persons.” This is one of the facts that was mentioned by a Croatian intersex activist Erin Vlahović while leading a workshop “Intersex and Proud” in Ljubljana organized by a non-governmental organisation Zavod TransAkcija and hosted by Ljubljana Pride. Following information was rather on the serious matter including talking about surgical interventions on intersex people without having their consent and about the consequences of such procedures that can influence their physical and mental health in many negative ways.

Even nowadays intersex persons are not being protected from non-consensual surgical interventions. These are being executed on intersex children with the consent of their parents, who are being forced to decide on the sex of their child soon after the child is born, in most countries in two weeks or similar. Due to the spread cultural belief that gender is binary (male or female), the idea that there is something wrong with a person born as intersex (Person born with variation/s in sex characteristics that do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies. This can include genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns.), has been adapted “mostly” universally and since the modern medicine evolved to a stage to allow physicians to carry out sex changing operations, intersex people have been operated on ever since, most of the time during their childhood with no chance of deciding if they want to go through with it and choosing the gender they identify with.

Apart from the societal pressure on choosing the sex of the baby, another problem the parents of intersex child are facing is the lack of information about their condition. In most cases the physicians are not willing to explain the diagnosis properly in details and thus misleading the parents forcing them to sign on anything the physician is proposing to do thinking it will be the best option for their child. The doctors often claim that the child will be confused and suffer from various mental conditions if their bodies are going to differ from the usual male or female forms. This most of the time leads to many operations during the intersex persons childhood. Operations’ main purpose is being covered up by some other explanations why they were needed, such as simple appendectomy and similar. Many intersex people are not told about their condition at all or the diagnosis is being covered up by their physicians and/or parents themselves. However, very often the parents are not informed enough on the matter by the doctors either and are not aware of the possible consequences these surgical interventions can have on their child later in their life. Not every intersex person who underwent this kind of process identifies with their “assigned” gender in their adulthood and also can be deprived of the opportunity to experience to be themselves in a natural way. One of the tragic cases of when an intersex person had been mutilated without knowing the purpose and consequences of the surgical interventions is a case of Christiane Völling from Germany – actually the first person who successfully managed to sue the physician concerned for damages caused by non-consensual sex reassigning surgical interventions. She was awarded indemnification in sum of €100,000.

Although Christiane was born in 1959 with XX sex chromosomes, due to her ambiguous genitalia she was assigned and raised as male Thomas. First, at 16 years, she was found to have female reproductive organs while undergone an appendectomy. Her female reproductive organs were removed in 1977 at the age of 18. According to medical papers, the purpose of the surgery was a testovarectomy – meaning the removal of both testicular and ovarian tissue. However, no testicular tissue were detected, neither by the appendectomy or the operation aimed to remove it. On the other hand her complete set of female reproductive organs was removed.  

It wasn’t until 2005 when Christiane, at the time 46 years old, found out something was not quite right with her. In her book “Ich war Mann und Frau. Mein Leben als Intersexuelle” [I was a man and woman. My life as an intersexual.] from 2010 she describes her struggles during her childhood and adulthood, how she always had to cope with everything on her own, suffering from various health problems connected to her condition she had no clue about. When, at 46, she needed to fill in a questionnaire while participating in a study on the life of intersex persons, it was the first time she even heard of the term “intersex” and yet she wasn’t even able to count the number of surgical and other medical interventions that were executed on her. She felt very anxious and afraid while answering 150 questions on her physical and mental health, sex life and other personal matters while having nobody who would support her all her life.

After the realization her physicians were keeping information about the state of her health away from her, she finally got access to her medical records and started a legal process against the physician concerned. In 2008 she became the first intersex person who won the process. The Regional Court of Cologne stated that the nature of the surgery she underwent in 1977 took place in absence of any acute health risks, therefore was not necessary and that Christiane was never explained the truth about her health condition and she was not able to fully understand the purpose of the surgery, so she could not give a valid consent to it. Due to this operation, she was deprived of the ability to procreate, was forced to live a life while not identifying with her gender and suffered other consequences such as urinary dysfunction and infections. 

Another successful legal process on the matter of non-consensual surgical interventions on intersex persons represents the case of Michaela Raab, also from Germany, who successfully sued not only the physicians involved but the whole health institution for genital mutilation – the Erlangen University Clinic – and received €250,000 in damages and a monthly pension of €1,600.

Germany seems to be one of the countries were the rights of the intersex people are starting to gain more attention. In the end of 2018 Germany legally introduced third gender. However, the unnecessary surgical interventions on intersex persons when the health of the child doesn’t require it, are prohibited only in Malta and Iceland. Another good exampled can be considered to be Finland and Portugal, where the registration of the child’s sex is not limited by time, in France the legal period is up to three years and in Belgium up to three months in contrary to the usual two weeks after the child is born. A huge step forward can be considered to be the adoption of the Resolution on the Rights of Intersex People by the European Parliament from February 14th 2019. With this resolution the European Parliament aims to encourage the European Commision and the Members States to adopt legislation supporting the protection of the rights of intersex people, condemning “sex-normalising treatments and surgeries”, violence and discrimination of intersex persons. The resolution sets clear standards for the protection of intersex person’s bodily integrity and adherence of the human rights.

We hope that this is one of the things that will ensure a better future for intersex people in Slovenia! At present there has been only one openly outed intersex person in Slovenia yet and unfortunately no intersex activists. However, the seriousness of the intersex issues should be addressed openly in order to change the unfortunately ‘routine’ practices in medicine of surgeries that are still being executed on intersex persons without their consent or fully understanding the consequences. In this regard, we would like to call on intersex people (and their parents) in Slovenia and people struggling with physical or mental health problems similar to the described above to reach out to us and/or get in touch with other organizations involved in intersex activism. Let’s make a change together!      



  • Erin Vlahović – Workshop “Intersex and Proud” (13th of February 2019, Ljubljana) 

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