TAIPEI – Hiker Chiu receives a message on Facebook. It’s a desperate plea from a mother in Hong Kong. The mother found Chiu through the OII-Chinese Facebook page – the sole Chinese language group-of-one representing Organization Intersex International.
Chiu messaged back and forth with the mother until s/he found out the child was born with an enlarged clitoris and the doctor wanted to remove it.
The doctor told the mother if not removed surgically the child may suffer from psychological harm in the future – a common medical diagnosis.
“I told her to wait and see if the doctor changes perspective,” Chiu said.
Chiu, 52, receives messages like this every day from Chinese speaking parents and intersex people seeking psychosocial support from Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan, where OII-Chinese is based.
Intersex are those born atypical with both male and female sexual organs–formerly known as hermaphrodite.
“I was born with so-called ‘ambiguous genitals.’ I had my surgery when I was six without consent because I was so little. The doctor removed my enlarged clitoris. I was raised as a girl,” Chiu said.
“But when I hit puberty I didn’t develop into a woman because I didn’t have breast development, or menstruation, and I had an Adam’s apple.”
In November, Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare released a directive requesting doctors halt gender “normalization” surgery. This is where they assign a gender to children born with both sexual organs.
“It’s a paradigm change,” said Dr. Liu Yueh-ping, medical specialist at Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Being assigned a gender doesn’t guarantee that a child will grow into an adult that identifies as such. One in ten children born receiving this surgery will grow up to identify as the opposite sex.
“It’s the first step. We’re thinking about providing more comprehensive care for [all] patients. Everyone is unique. That’s why we need to respect everyone’s decision,” said Dr. Liu.
Chiu lauds the efforts of Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare. But s/he argues the government hasn’t done enough to recognize intersex as many don’t even know enough about it.
This is where OII-Chinese steps in. Chiu shares the story of intersex with medical professionals and anybody in government wanting to learn more.
“Most intersex people had surgery when they were little. They had no idea they are intersex and nobody will tell them. The doctors fix us because they want to assign a gender. They want to remove the social stigma,” s/he said.
In Asia, Taiwan is known as the most progressive place for human rights. But because of the One China policy, many countries refuse to recognize Taiwan as anything but a part of China, where human rights aren’t recognized.
With a battle over marriage equality for LGBTIQ raging in Taiwan, it’s easy to miss this constantly evolving acronym. The ‘I’ in it refers to intersex, considered a newcomer to the gay rights movement.
“The [medical profession has] reached consensus that intersex babies shouldn’t be fixed right away. They should have time and space to think about it. They can wait for them to become older or adults to decide,” said Wang Hsiu-yun, associate professor at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University.
Taiwan’s medical profession fosters a learning culture. Many doctors are open-minded and view sexuality as a fluid concept, rather than as only traditional male or female.
“The doctor is not obliged to do any sex change if there is an ambiguous genitalia. The situation will be when they grow up and have a mature concept of the issue. It’s up to [the patient],” said Dr. Chiang Sheng, obstetrician and gynecologist at Mackay Memorial Hospital in the capital Taipei.
Chiu had a long struggle with identity. It was only 10 years ago – after breaking up with her girlfriend – that s/he truly understood her sexuality.
“I was confused like everybody else. I identified as an intersex by reading others’ stories. This is the way that you can share your story so others can identify if they are intersex or not,” s/he said.
Taipei’s annual Gay Pride event celebrated its 16th anniversary earlier this year. A record number of people attended. This is the eighth year in a row Chiu has attended as a leader in Taiwan’s intersex community.
S/he puts the ‘I’ into LGBTIQ in Taiwan.
“I raised my intersex banner and wore a tee shirt,” Chiu said. “I got so many hugs. People were smiling and supportive. This is why Taiwan is so important. You have the rights to express yourself. This is why I can safely come out [here].”
To learn more about intersex, please view this UN Fact Sheet.