Skip to main content

Intersex Citizens

Volume 799: debated on Monday 9 September 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to maintain the human rights of variations of sex characteristics (VSC) intersex citizens of all ages.

My Lords, in the 2018 LGBT Action Plan, the Government announced their intention to publish a call for evidence on the experience of people who have variations in sex characteristics. This has now closed and we are analysing the responses.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. Infants are being subjected to surgery which turns out in later life to be sometimes unnecessary and often extremely harmful. Will the Government, at the earliest opportunity, change the Equality Act 2010 to include variations of sex characteristics so that these very vulnerable people have some legal protection, which they do not at the moment?

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness and the way she has worked on this issue. She raises an important point: as she knows, we require more evidence on this issue to understand the long-term impacts of the medical interventions in children which she outlined. That is why we asked for information on this topic in the recent call for evidence and we are currently analysing the results.

My Lords, there are a number of children who have had sex-change operations who later on bitterly regret it. I have seen some of these people in fertility clinics; some also have complications after surgery. The decision to undergo gender reassignment is a very grave one. Are the Government satisfied that these decisions are being taken with sufficient care?

The noble Lord outlined the very point articulated by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. Obviously, we would never want children to have to go through something they might later regret, or which they feel has been imposed upon them and can destroy the rest of their lives. That is why we did the call for evidence and why we will proceed carefully and responsibly in this sensitive area.

My Lords, these issues are complex to understand and highly sensitive, even for those of us steeped in LGBT+ issues. One problem is that, at the moment, there is no official data on the number, frequency and types of interventions for intersex people. Would it be a good idea for the NHS to start collecting this?

I do not know whether my noble friend knows this, but the LGBT survey we conducted had 108,000 responses—the largest of its kind ever undertaken in the world. Almost 2,000 respondents identified as intersex. However, my noble friend is right: that proportion is a snapshot of those who responded. People have been calling for the census to record this; there will be the opportunity to do just that in the next census.

My Lords, intersex people face widespread discrimination. What steps are the Government taking to ensure awareness of the human rights of intersex people? Will the Government ensure appropriate training on intersex issues for health professionals and public officials, including legislators, the judiciary and policymakers?

The noble Lord raises an issue which stems, in many cases, from ignorance. People mix up intersex with transgender: they are entirely different. Intersex is neither a sexual orientation nor a gender identity issue. He is absolutely right that more information and education on this are needed, as is more training for medical professionals—an issue which many intersex respondents brought up in the call for evidence.

I welcome the Government’s attention to this issue of minority rights. We understand that although this is a small minority it is an important one, and that early medical intervention can lead to deep unhappiness. Will the Government’s consultation lead to a public education programme? The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, mentioned the need for medical professionals to be trained, but we well understand that a lot of parents will need a certain amount of background enlightenment as to these possibilities and to the dangers of giving in to pressures at an early stage to “do something about it”, rather than allowing children to grow up as they are.

It is not a consultation so much as a call for evidence, which is a more informed process, engaging with various stakeholders with expertise in this area. The noble Lord will be aware, of course, that intersex or variations in sexual characteristics can be chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal or indeed anatomical. Therefore, it is very important that whichever public services the individual comes into contact with, particularly medical practitioners, are educated and trained to be sensitive to the various issues.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that intersex people face discrimination on the grounds of sex characteristics, including in access to healthcare, education, employment and sports and in obtaining official documents. Will she consider amending our anti-discrimination laws to ensure that the situation of people with intersex traits is effectively covered, by adding sex characteristics to the list of protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010? This would ensure that their human rights are recognised—they should be entitled to full protection under the law.

I think that that might be putting the cart before the horse in some ways; we have to understand, through the call for evidence, precisely what the issues are. I think intersex people are covered under current discrimination laws, but I take the noble Baroness’s point. Let us first be educated and informed by the call for evidence before we decide, as a Government, what the most effective way forward is.

My Lords, in the light of what has been said about the importance of expertise in this area, it must be concerning that there has been a decline in the number of child and adolescent psychiatrists in recent years. I understand that investment and effort is being made and that that trend is perhaps beginning to be reversed. Will the Minister look very carefully to see that we are successfully recruiting and retaining more child and adolescent psychiatrists to help in this area?

I certainly acknowledge the noble Earl’s point and I shall refer his comments to my colleagues in health.