UNLV professor explores the 'dubious diagnosis' in book on intersex people (aired 2017)



Originally aired: March 3, 2017

We're doing a summer series, looking back at some of the interesting people and topics we've talked about on State of Nevada over last several years. 

In the alphabet soup of sexual identity – L, G, B, T and so on – one letter sometimes gets left out: I.

"I" stands for intersex. Intersex includes a range of variations of sexual organs and chromosomes. The old and now considered outdated - and possibly offensive - term was hermaphrodite. 

UNLV assistant professor Georgiann Davis is intersex, and she's written a new book about the trait called "Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis."

Davis points out that all sexual organs come in various sizes and shapes, and intersex is just part of the spectrum.

"Intersex may be an extreme on that spectrum, but it is part of the natural variation in society," she said.

Davis was born with XY chromosomes and testes inside her body. She had a vagina, but no uterus. 

However, she did not know any of this until she was 13 and hadn't started menstruating. After complaining about abdominal pain, her mother took her to a doctor. While the abdominal pain was nothing serious, the doctor discovered she was intersex. 

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Davis said she, like many intersex children, was lied to by doctors and by her parents. She underwent medically unnecessary surgery to have the testes removed. The doctor told her he was removing her ovaries because they were pre-cancerous.

Davis found out years later when she was looking through her medical records.

"I really felt like a freak at the moment," she told KNPR's State of Nevada.

Davis said it is not uncommon for intersex people to not know they are intersex for years.

"I lived a good chunk of my life not even knowing I was intersex," she said. "I was told lies, like many other intersex were, about my body. I went along with those lies because that’s what I knew as the truth and it wasn’t the truth at all."

Now, Davis understands that her parents and doctor thought they were doing the right thing. It was common practice to keep the truth from patients, the idea being the truth would interfere with the patient's developing gender identity.

"They were trying to protect me, but in the hope to protect me they actually harmed me because it’s not good to lie to people and to withhold information," Davis explained.

Much like it was common practice years ago to withhold information about adoptions, Davis said people now realize it is important to tell children and teenagers what is happening to their bodies.

Besides telling the truth, Davis strongly advocates against surgeries to make an intersex person "normal." She told KNPR's State of Nevada that the surgeries are a "human rights violation."

She said many doctors don't understand what intersex is and want to "fix" the problem. 

"Because in this society we only recognize two sexes: male and female. Any deviation from that is considered by these doctors as a medical problem," she said.

When a doctor says it is a "medical emergency," parents, with only their child's wellbeing in mind, approve the surgeries.

"The case with intersex is doctors present it to parents as an emergency and then they establish the need for an emergency response and parents act without having all the information necessary," she said. 

Now, with a better understanding of the fluidity of gender identity and more people disclosing  they are intersex, doctors better understand that surgery is not always appropriate.

However, Davis said somewhere in the world an intersex person was going through a surgery to correct what someone has perceived is wrong with them. 

Davis was also featured in a recent National Geographic documentary called "Gender Revolution."

It explored how both society and science are redefining ways we look at gender identity. 

She believes it is important for people to talk about being intersex. She said writing about her experience was "liberating" because she spent years being "ashamed."

Now, she participates in organizations that provide support for intersex people and their families. She is also a president of a group that advocates for intersex youth. 

Davis wants all intersex people to replace fear with openness. 

From NPR: What Does It Mean To Be Intersex?



InterACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth 


Georgiann Davis, UNLV assistant professor of sociology

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