Hermaphrodites are safe in ... Colombia?

How has a country known for its indiscriminate violence become the global haven for sexual diversity?

Published October 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Oct. 28, 1999

A peaceful oasis for intersexual (hermaphroditic) infants finally exists, in one of the world's most murderous countries.

Colombia, ravaged by crime and cocaine, has emerged as the planet's most compassionate legal ally of "sexually ambiguous" babies born with aspects of both male and female genitalia, according to a recent press release from the Intersex Society of North America. The ISNA reports that the Colombian Constitutional Court issued decisions on May 12 and Aug. 2 that decree "that parents cannot give consent on a child's behalf to surgeries intended to determine sexual identity."

Freaked-out mommies and daddies there can no longer easily order surgeons to barbarically snip 'n' stitch bits of ambiguous tot crotch into "acceptable" genitalia. The court based its rulings on individual liberties guaranteed in the Colombian Constitution, and on protections espoused by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Colombian laws, according to American intersex activists, are a far cry from the backward state of hermaphrodites' civil rights in the United States.

"Modern medicine has not been friendly to the intersex community," ISNA director Cheryl Chase told me on Tuesday. "Native American tribes accept intersexuals, and Medieval Europe had laws that recognized and defined the rights of intersex people. But in the late 1950s, doctors in industrialized nations took over. They got control of assigning gender; they started doing their surgery."

Experts estimate that 2,000 intersex children in the U.S. are altered with scalpels annually, as doctors carve up hermaphroditic organs to make them appear "normal." Sensitive infant nerve tissue is lopped off and discarded; orgasmic ability is often annihilated. Although ethicists and a tiny fraction of physicians question the validity of non-consensual intersex surgery, they're overwhelmed by the vast preponderance of slashers.

Is it ironic that homicidal Colombia is the first nation to categorize Intersex Genital Mutilation as a brutal human-rights violation? Perhaps, but it also makes a certain kind of sense. Having suffered pain, terror and grief in a deeply entrenched and hopelessly complex civil and drug war, maybe Colombians are more willing to outlaw anguish that seems so patently unnecessary, and easy to remedy.

By Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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