[Op/Ed] Intersex disappointment with New Zealand Human Rights Commission

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OII Australia chairperson, Gina Wilson, has pointed toward a busy 2011 for the organization in Australia. In an article published in the Sydney Star Observer Ms Wilson draws attention not only to some of the primary issues faced by intersex people, but also illustrates the advances occurring in Australia.

“OII will once again argue against the pathologizing of intersex by medicine which since 2006 has described it as a disorder. We will continue to seek wider understandings of intersex as natural differences of sex anatomy and to argue for broader interpretations of sex,” writes Ms Wilson.

It is well understood by intersex representatives (and, for that matter, any one else who takes the time to understand the issues) that the medicalization of intersex biological diversity lies at the core of most intersex activism. This has parallels in the historical medicalization of sexual orientation where concerted attempts were also made to cure or ‘fix’ gays and lesbians.

The so-called ‘fixes’, known as ‘reparative therapies’ were, in effect, nothing more than attempts to enforce compliance with entrenched culture norms. Exactly the same motives underpin medicine’s obsession with pathologizing and modifying intersex anatomies to this day.

Consequently OII was deeply disturbed to discover this description of intersex being advanced by the NZ-HRC in its recently-released publication, Human Rights in New Zealand 2010.

In New Zealand, the term intersex has predominantly been used to describe medical conditions where a person’s physical body or chromosomes differ from what is considered standard for a male or a female.

However, a small and increasingly visible number of people have reclaimed the term as an identity, and are using this as a basis for raising awareness about issues for intersex visibility or perceived extension of protection.

Despite submissions from OII and other intersex parties pointing out that intersex was not, per sé, a medical condition, the NZ-HRC adopted the medical model. It has also attempted to argue intersex as an identity issue, this again despite having it made clear that biological diversity both defines and binds intersex people, not the myriad of different identities they can and do exhibit!

OII is further perplexed by the NZ-HRC’s use of the term “perceived extension of protection.” The Commission has not argued that the protections claimed by other groups are merely ‘perceived extensions’ and we would have thought, for example, that the entrenched denial of genital and anatomical integrity was somewhat more concrete than ‘perceived.’

OII is deeply concerned by NZ-HRC’s clear inability to address the issues of intersex rights. The Commission needs only look across the Tasman to see an infinitely more flexible and humane approach. It cannot be unaware of the direction being taken by its Australian counterpart. That approach recognizes both biological and behavioural diversity, does not attempt to present them both as behavioural (gender) issues and extends to intersex the simple courtesy of acknowledging the very real discrimination they experience, both from health professionals and the wider community.

We are disappointed with the NZ-HRC’s apparent determination to see intersex diversity through the lenses of ideological transgenderism. By definition this approach discounts biology and presents identity as the dominant defining characteristic of any group it deals with. OII is not denying the significance of individual identities. However the organization rejects the NZ-HRC’s attempt to rewrite what it means to be intersex by conscripting it into ideological terminology.

To OII it seems clear that the New Zealand Commission has been ‘captured’ by gender ideology to the point that it is no longer capable being either objective or even-handed. We suggest that it might be time for NZ Human Rights Commissioner, Joy Liddicoat, to step aside. Hopefully a new Human Rights Commissioner would usher in a new, more objective era, in which ideological biases are not permitted to harm the prospects of other human beings.