Steph Lum gave this speech to the Inclusive Canberra think tank, held by the ACT LGBTIQ Ministerial Advisory Council, on 14 November 2017.
Tonight I am speaking as a young person with an intersex variation.
I’m really encouraged that we have such a positive environment here in the ACT and there’s a lot of energy and will to make things better for the LGBTIQ community. But how we make sure that everyone within that community feels included is something we have to really think hard about.
I have lived in Canberra for almost 7 years, and it is in that time that I both learned about my variation, not long after moving here, and then some years later found out that my variation was called an intersex variation. So, as someone who has lived the whole part of their life consciously knowing about their intersex variation in Canberra, how included do I feel – both within the LGBTIQ community, and in Canberra more broadly?
The answer to both of these questions, to be blunt, is not at all.
That’s not to say, of course, that I don’t love Canberra. I do. It’s my home. But being intersex is not even close to being the whole of my being or existence; and so it is in other ways that I find myself included here. But when I think about what someone with an intersex variation might need, and whether they can find it here, I come up short.
But first – what even is intersex? Intersex people are people who are born with bodies that are different to what we typically think male and female bodies are like. Some of us have characteristics typically associated with both male and female, with neither, or have fewer characteristics associated with one. There are many, many variations. The point here is that intersex people are hugely diverse in both our bodies, and – just like non-intersex people – in our identities. And so when we are talking about inclusion, we are talking about including a hugely diverse group of people who all have different needs, understandings of themselves, and language to talk about themselves.
I have less than five minutes to deliver a speech on intersex inclusion in Canberra, and yet – and yet – I know I have to spend precious time explaining what intersex even is.
So I ask you this –
How can we even begin to feel included when most people don’t even know who we are? How can we even begin to feel included when every time we want to talk about what we need or what the problems are that we face, we have to take on the role of teacher and begin by explaining who we are and how different we are from each other? How can we even begin to feel included when we are not recognised as being different? Both from each other, and from others within the LGBTIQ acronym?
To feel included you need to feel like your differences are recognised and valued. You need to feel that others can and will stand with you when you need them to. And you need to feel that you can live the life you want to live without judgement. Canberra claims to be the most inclusive city. How can we make this true for intersex people? What does an intersex person need?
Don’t stress, here’s a little something we’ve prepared earlier. This is the Darlington Statement. A helpful resource created by Australian intersex activists just earlier this year. It lists exactly what we need, so no one has to guess. Just Google the Darlington Statement, it literally couldn’t be easier. But, how these demands listed translate in the ACT context is something we need to be better at working together to understand and implement. And I hope that many of the points in here can encourage and inform discussions here tonight.
So, with the Darlington Statement in hand, let me reflect on just three things that I would personally need to begin to feel included here and what other intersex people who live here might need, as we start on this journey of inclusivity – because for intersex people, it really is just the beginning.
1. Information, understanding and recognition. It’s only the first point and I’ve already done a sneaky three points in one. Information, understanding and recognition. We need to be educating in schools, educating parents, and providing accessible information for people with intersex variations. How can we even begin to feel included when we don’t even know where to find out more about ourselves or how to talk about ourselves in a way that empowers us to speak confidently about who we are?
We need to work to understand the intersex population in Canberra as a whole. We need to find out what happens in hospitals here and in medical clinics, because how can we even begin to feel included when we feel like people and institutions are hiding information about us? We cannot truly include a population that we don’t understand.
We also need to recognise the diversity of intersex people. We need to recognise that while the I for intersex sits in LGBTIQ, this works to both include some of us and exclude others. We need to recognise that the majority of intersex people are heterosexual and cisgendered and many do not see themselves as part of any queer or rainbow community, but that these people still need to be supported and feel included within Canberra for being who they are. Only funding LGBTIQ organisations to assist intersex people can therefore never be the only answer – firstly because often the money is not used to address intersex issues, but secondly because so many intersex people are not associated with these groups. How can we even begin to feel included when in the ACT there is no funding for intersex specific groups, run by and for intersex people, and not just broader LGBTIQ organisations?
2. We need to stop assuming that intersex people belong in a third category. Intersex people are diverse. Any third category needs to reflect a “non-binary” gender identity, and not be associated with intersex bodies, and it needs to be accessible to intersex and non-intersex people alike. How can we even begin to feel included when we are forced or assumed to belong in categories that we don’t want to be in? Whether this is forcing non-binary or gender diverse intersex people into male or female categories or whether it is assuming that intersex people are not real men or women and don’t belong in male or female categories to begin with?
3. We need to recognise that one of the most important and pressing issues facing intersex people as a whole, at every stage of life, are coercive and unnecessary medical interventions. This needs to stop. We need to be protected. We need oversight and transparency in hospitals, we need parents to be supported and given access to information and community, and we need strong and clear legislation to stop this from happening. But how can we even begin to feel included when here in the ACT we don’t even acknowledge that these interventions happen, we don’t accept responsibility, and we don’t try to work together with intersex people to improve practices for the future?
Two and a half years ago, sitting at my desk in an ANU residence, I found out what intersex was, by chance, and that what I had was an intersex variation. I didn’t really know what to think but immediately I felt like I had no one to talk to here. I didn’t have information, there was no public understanding and there was little public recognition. There was talk of third categories, but in which I do not belong. Canberra is my home. I’ve found a place here, and I’ve found a place in the LGBTIQ community here. But that is not because of my intersex variation, it is in spite of it. I hope we can change that, and I hope we can use the current momentum for change to improve the lives of intersex people here. If we truly want to include intersex people and allow everyone to feel that their whole selves can be included, we need to listen to each other when we say what we want, we need to speak up for each other when our voices are not being heard and we need to work together to help Canberra be inclusive for everyone.