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Out of the shadows: The fight for intersex inclusion

People often whisper in hushed tones the word “hermaphrodite” as an insult or a means to label something which they cannot fully comprehend. Now considered a pejorative slur, this misnomer has pervaded Philippine society, creating this barrier of ignorance that has stigmatized the intersex community.

Replacing the misnomer, “intersex” is a more inclusive and appropriate umbrella term that covers a wide range of biological variations. According to United Nations (UN) Free & Equal, “Intersex people are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads, and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies.”

Despite being recognized as a legitimate third sex category by countless countries and even intergovernmental organizations such as the UN, much of the progress here in the country remain stunted by misinformation and lack of awareness. Intersex Philippines hopes to change this by leading the charge toward the recognition of intersex in laws and lives of all Filipino people—signaling a more hopeful and inclusive future.

Struggling to come out

The misconceptions surrounding intersex people have instilled a fear of coming out in many, which Jeff Cagandahan, co-founder of Intersex Philippines, refers to as an “invisibility issue.” The intersex community is bigger than what the statistics reflect; such numbers only document those who publicly disclose this kind of information about themselves. They do not take into account the people who are coming to terms with being intersex or others who are unaware that they are intersex. Coupled with society’s limited knowledge of the matter, intersex individuals are afraid of the kind of treatment they will inevitably receive. “[Many] claim that intersex people are rare dahil dun sa invisibility issue. [In truth], kaunti ang lumalabas dahil dun sa stigma at discrimination,” Jeff says.

(Many claim that intersex people are rare due to the invisibility issue. In truth, only a few come out due to existing stigma and discrimination.)

Intersex individuals in the Philippines are also repeatedly stigmatized and harassed. Alym Escultura, also a co-founder of Intersex Philippines, remembers being misgendered and yelled at while being in a public restroom. He also remarks how the treatment of intersex individuals in the Philippines can be cruel and invasive, which took a toll early on in his life. “I almost lost my scholarship because of a medical examination that my college required. [Others] were just examined for 10 minutes? Five minutes? I was examined for three hours,” Alym shares.

Jeff recounts a similar experience with the medical community when he visited a doctor for a check-up. “Nagpacheck-up ako noon at dahil sabi ng doktor ay rare [ang condition ko] tinawag rin niya ‘yung co-doctors niya,” he recalls, “at habang binubulalat ka niya, nandun sila nanonood which is mali dahil may privacy kami at hindi dapat ginagawa ‘yun.”

(I had a check-up with my doctor before and he said that my condition was rare. So he called his fellow doctors and while he was examining me, I was being watched by everyone. That was wrong because it violated my privacy.)

The scrutiny was worse in school. He would frequently excuse himself from attending classes, particularly Physical Education if it required changing one’s clothes. “Siyempre ‘pag shower, ang mga babae […] pakikiusapan ka na ‘pakisabon naman ng likod ko,’” he shares, “Hindi ko alam kung paano magtago [at] ‘di parang maliliit ka.”

(When I shower, the women would ask me to wash their backs. I did not know how to hide and it felt shameful.)

Finding solace

Conceived in 2017, Intersex Philippines establishes itself as a safe space for intersex individuals and a platform to promote public cognizance of intersexuality. “We decided to establish Intersex Philippines as a support group,” explains Jeff. “We know […] the feeling of [being] alone dahil akala mo ikaw lang ganyan sa mundo.”

(We know the feeling of being alone, thinking you’re all alone in the world.)

To divulge being intersex is undoubtedly a difficult process, whether done in person or on the internet. As a primarily online-based organization, Intersex Philippines values the importance of fostering online and offline camaraderie with those who reach out to them. The coronavirus may have robbed them of the opportunity to meet with people face-to-face, but trust and a cordial relationship with them can still be achieved through constant communication. “Regularly, we exchange pleasantries like ‘How are you?’ or ‘How are you doing right now?’” Alym shares. Checking in on one another, especially through tough times like now, makes people feel valued and loved.

The lack of financial resources and new members may be discouraging—the latter often due to people’s reluctance to come out—but Intersex Philippines is resolved to power through these challenges. In 2018 and 2019, the group was invited and recognized at the Asian Intersex Forum, where intersex people from various regions in the continent came together. For some, the event also marked their first proud public declaration of their intersexuality.

From relaying their experiences to drafting projects that are aimed to address regional needs, the forum created a sense of hope and belonging. “Nakapagshare [‘yung iba] ng experiences in [their] projects—kung ano ba ‘yung naging successful, ano ba ‘yung hindi naging successful project from Europe, [for example], at kung applicable ba ito sa Philippines. We share experiences, at kahit papano, nakakatulong ito,” Jeff remarks.

(Many shared their experiences in implementing projects—what exactly were successful and unsuccessful in Europe, for example, and if they are applicable here in the Philippines. We share experiences, and in many ways, it helps us.)

Slow and steady wins the race

Admittedly, the process of self-acceptance continues to be a struggle within the community—a struggle that Intersex Philippines knows too well and the very same struggle that mothered their organization. “Understand yourself first. Accept yourself first. Seek help from those who are intersex also,” Alym encourages.

The journey that Intersex Philippines arduously set forth is starting to bear fruit and no longer do its members have to hide behind aliases and excuses to appear normal for they were always part of the norm. What the intersex community needs from society, especially from the government, are recognition, respect, and well-defined laws to protect the welfare and rights of all Filipino intersex. As Jeff aptly remarks, “We don’t need fixing.”

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