Report on Human Rights Commission Hearing

Classification: News

Learn how to view the hearing online, or to order a DVD or a VHS tape.

This report on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission hearing on intersex comes to us from Peter Trinkl, board member of Bodies Like Ours:

On May 27, 2004, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission held a historic hearing on Intersex issues. It was the first public hearing held on Intersex issues in the United States. The hearing room at San Francisco City Hall was packed with intersex people and our allies.

At the beginning of the hearing, Marcus Arana, a discrimination investigator with the Human Rights Commission, briefly laid out the reasons for the hearing. He reported that the SF HRC had received complaints that intersex people were being subjected to infant genital surgery for the purposes of sex assignment without proper consent. While he acknowledged that some childhood genital surgery was necessary for medical reasons, such as providing a functional urinary canal, he expressed concerns about cosmetic surgeries meant to “normalize” the appearance of a child’s genitals. He also reported that around 1 in 2000 births. The politics of what constitutes an intersex condition is heavily involved in these figures.

The first person from the public to speak was Dr. Larry Baskin, a urologist working at University of California at San Francisco. UCSF is the main center for infant genital surgery in San Francisco. Dr. Baskin said that the treatment of intersex conditions has improved in recent years. He said that urologists are concerned with the best treatment possible for intersex children. Dr. Baskin disputed the claim that about 40 infant genital surgeries are performed each year at UCSF which was the figure supplied by his colleague Dr. Melvin Grumbach to SF HRC investigators. Baskin claimed that he had performed only 1 infant genital surgery in the last year.

Thea Hillman, former Board President of the Intersex Society of North America shared her experiences growing up with an intersex condition. As a champion of intersex rights, she condemned the concealment model of intersex treatment, which holds that all information about an intersex child’s medical treatment should be withheld from the child. She said that ISNA’s position is that the child should not be subject to shame and secrecy, but rather be fully informed about medical treatments.

Thea Hillman’s testimony was followed by the sharing of personal experiences by intersex people. The personal experiences shared were incredibly powerful, and deeply moved both the commissioners and the audience. Out of respect for those who shared their deeply personal and often painful experiences, I will not try to summarize the testimony here.

The testimony was covered by the city television network, several independent filmmakers, and a court reporter. The testimony of the intersex community has been preserved for the future.

After a short break, the hearing continued with the testimony of parents of intersex children. Freema Hillman, mother of Thea Hillman, shared her
experiences of raising an intersex child. The testimony of Debbie Hartman, mother of Kelli Hartman, was read on her behalf into the record.

Following the testimony of parents, a couple of medical providers shared their testimony. Dr. Kate O’Hanlan, OB/GYN presented a powerful slide show
on how the medical treatment of intersex children often violates the ethical standards of the medical profession. She presented passages from the Nuremburg Codes and the governing bodies of medical practice in the United States, which posed serious ethical questions about the practice of
infant genital surgery. Dr. O’Hanlan also noted the lack of adequate long term follow-up studies on infant genital surgeries. Dr. Milton Diamond,
through testimony that was read on his behalf, called for a moratorium of the practice of infant genital surgery on intersex children. He believes
that such surgeries should not be performed without the consent of the child.

Members of the educational community addressed the commission. Dr. Joan Roughgarden, with the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford,
following the line of argument in her new book, “Evolution’s Rainbow”, said that the assumptions of what is “normal” presented in the biological
training of pre-med students is contradicted by the actual sexual diversity of the natural world. Dr. Naomi O‚ Keefe, a psychologist with the Argosy Institute, testified on the psychological harm done to intersex people when the psychological issues confronting us are not openly addressed, but rather hidden behind a veil of secrecy and shame. Joy O‚ Donnell, Director of Training for the Human Sexuality program at SF State University, testified about progress being made in training around intersex issues. She said that when her program did workshops on intersex topics for medical professionals, that the participants from the medical community expressed deep appreciation to the Human Sexuality program for educating them on intersex issues, because their previous training had been very limited. She also mentioned that the Human Sexuality program is now working on a
groundbreaking semester long course on intersex issues.

During the public comments portion of the hearing, several people presented their own moving stories of either being intersex or having been subjected to female circumcision.

The next step will be the drafting of a findings and recommendation report by members of the intersex task force. It is expected that will be due out in the fall.