‘They’re playing with our bodies, lives, and integrity’
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
An intersex resident of Puerto Rico said Wednesday that the island has no safe health clinics or spaces that can openly and effectively address that community’s medical needs, and urged health professionals to educate themselves on the matter.
During a conversation hosted by Trans Task Force Puerto Rico titled “Intersexuality in Puerto Rico,” Maximilián Vega Vélez (whose personal pronouns are he-they), founder of Girasoles Creative Studios, said that as a trans and nonbinary person who wants to undergo gender confirmation therapy, he has been struggling for three years to proceed due to the lack of knowledge on the part of the island’s public health experts on intersexuality.
According to Planned Parenthood, the term intersex is generally used for a variety of situations in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the boxes of “female” or “male.”
“It has been complicated to have access to this [therapy] because I have doctors who tell me that I can’t begin because I have to undergo specific tests and that they don’t know the consequences of starting to use testosterone, while there are others who don’t have these concerns in their practice,” he said. “There is also an economic issue when it comes to access; I had to undergo 15 analytic tests where I had to pay from my funds because my health plan did not cover them.”
“There is an invisibility when it comes to intersex people; doctors read your results and they just say: ‘Your case is one in a million.’ Are you giving me information with that answer? Are you really saying this?” Vega Vélez added. “I have so many narratives throughout my life of doctors who only jump to that conclusion.”
He said the lack of peer-reviewed information on intersexuality on the island has also been a burden because he doesn’t know where to find reliable information.
“I have to speak with other intersex friends around the world, through video calls, asking them about very specific things,” said Vega Vélez, who is the coordinator of The Violet Circle, a grassroots organization that supports intersex, trans and nonbinary people in Puerto Rico. “I have also not found any clinics that openly speak about intersexuality; they speak about DSDs [the initials for Disorders of Sexual Development].”
“We need them, we dream of them, but they don’t exist,” Vega Vélez added.
Meanwhile, Vega Vélez said, misdiagnosis continues from doctor to doctor until “there’s no other label or classification.”
“They’re playing with the lives and bodies of intersex people,” he said. “You’re playing with the integrity of our lives.”
Planned Parenthood’s shorthand definition notwithstanding, for Vega Vélez being intersex means “the pure evidence of the breadth, the plurality, the diversity of being and existing in this world.”
“It means how diverse and beautiful our bodies can be,” he said. “It is the corporeality that questions the binary system of gender and sex, as do trans, non-binary, and queer people.”
“Now, if I go for a more concrete term, intersex people are people who are born with sexual characteristics, whether genitalia, gonads, hormonal levels, chromosomal patterns that are defined as atypical or that do not fit with the concepts of what it is to be a female or male body,” Vega Vélez added. “Being intersex is not a gender identity; it is not a pathologization, even though medicine may establish it as such, and it is not a third sex because there is an infinite number of intersex variations.”
Meanwhile, Raquela Delgago Valentín, who is María Fund Puerto Rico’s research mobilization director, said neither is intersexuality “a sexual orientation.”
“Even though the letter ‘I’ is within the LGBTQ+ acronym for visibility, there are great differences in what intersexuality means,” she said. “When we speak about intersexuality, the term is used to represent the variety of corporealities that exist; also, people and activists who recognize themselves as intersex use the term to break away from the medical nomenclature that refers to these diverse patterns in bodies.”
Delgado Valentín said giving visibility to the issues that the intersex population face in the social work, human behavior, and public health fields “is a human rights issue.”
“Not all medical schools teach this topic to the future medical community; therefore, there is a gap that must be addressed because if we have developing public health professionals who don’t know about the complexity of what it is to be intersexual, the attention toward intersex people will be flawed,” she said. “It is our professional duty to ensure that every person is attended to according to their deserved human rights.”
Moreover, Delgado Valentín said, some hospitals in Puerto Rico continue performing surgical procedures on intersex newborns’ genitals without consent and using outdated protocols that could harm their growth permanently.