Since Mama Cash’s beginning in 1983, many things have changed, but some things have stayed the same. From the start Mama Cash’s mission has been to fund marginalised groups working on contentious issues, but over time and as political landscapes shifted, we have revised our mission to ensure it reflects the reality of this work. For example, although we had been funding groups led by and for transgender people for years prior, in 2012 Mama Cash officially included transgender rights in our mission.
We find ourselves again wishing to express in no uncertain terms our ongoing support for a group of activists we support, and officially include intersex rights activism in our mission.
Mama Cash has been supporting trans, lesbian and bisexual women’s organisations who included intersex people in their work, such as the Rainbow Identity Association in Botswana and the Bilitis Resource Centre Foundation in Bulgaria, since 2011. Over the past several years we have also begun funding groups led by intersex people, like Stichting Nederlands Netwerk Intersekse/DSD (NNID) and intersex activists from Russia.
Supporting intersex rights activism is in line with our feminist principles, fits into our theory of change, and advances our goal of supporting the growth of strong feminist movements that will put an end to injustice, violence and inequality.
What is intersex?
Understanding what intersex means requires first looking at what we mean by ‘sex.’ Sex is considered the biological component of gender. Sex refers to the body (specifically to physical sex characteristics) and gender refers to the societal roles, as well as individual expression of those roles and expectations.
As the table shows, both gender and sex are seen as binaries, which means there are only two options, and in most cultures it means that you have to be one or the other.
In fact, the first thing that happens to almost all babies is that they are assigned male or female. When a baby is born, the doctor looks at their body, and based on what they see declares the baby one sex or the other. But as is always the case with binaries like these, sex is actually more complex than it seems at first glance. It includes a range of characteristics, not all of which are visible, such as internal reproductive organs and chromosomes.
Intersex people are people with some combination of the sex characteristics typically considered male or female. An estimated 1.7% of the world’s population have a genetic, hormonal or anatomical sex variation. So while they are rarely spoken about in feminist or human rights discourses, intersex conditions are actually about as common as having red hair.
Why are intersex rights a feminist issue?
Feminist and transgender activists have been identifying and challenging the harms of the gender binary for decades. Like the gender binary, the sex binary is often oppressive for those who don’t fit in one category or the other. Despite natural and often benign variance, medical institutions tend to only recognise bodies that conform to our ideas of a ‘normal’ male or female body. This leads to stigma, marginalisation and violence against intersex people. In turn, the medical and health needs of intersex people are often not met, and they are sometimes even from birth deprived of bodily autonomy. The violation of the right to self-determination, and discrimination against people perceived as different, are core feminist issues.
In the course of their work to end stigma and secure their rights, intersex activists challenge the restrictive sex binary – which also challenges the gender binary. This work is a vital component of feminism, which aims to dismantle all systems that oppress and inflict violence on marginalised groups. Intersex activism works to transform our societies for the better, into spaces which are inclusive and safe for everyone, with room for all kinds of bodies.
And that is what a feminist world looks like.
- What is intersex? Different definitions compiled by Intersex Human Rights Australia
- The Genderbread person, for more on gender and sex
- What It’s Like To Be Intersex In Russia: “My Doctors Never Explained Anything Honestly To Me”
- What are Intersex Rights? by Open Society Foundations
Header photo by Ins A Kromminga