Jim Ambrose was born with what science refers to as "ambiguous genitalia." Though he was chromosomally male, his testes were internalized and his penis small. Rather than letting Ambrose live as he was, doctors drew from a medical protocol still widely used today and conducted a series of painful operations to make him appear female.
"This stuff is really hard to say," Ambrose told a crowd of roughly 40 people at last week's inaugural Gender Expansion Conference at the University of Montana.
Those unfamiliar with intersex conditions likely came away shocked by Ambrose's presentation, but that's exactly why he stressed the importance of educating the broader public about the issue. Roughly 1 in 2,000 people are born with genitals atypical enough to make the person's sex unclear. And ever since Johns Hopkins psychiatrist John Money argued in the 1950s that gender should be fixed during the first two years of life, doctors have performed thousands of surgeries similar to the one Ambrose received.
These operations cause a loss of sexual function, incontinence and scarring. Just as damaging is the emotional turmoil that can accompany a forced gender assignment. Ambrose, for instance, lived as a female until seven years ago, when he began taking testosterone and transitioned into a man.
"I'm just beginning to put my life together," he said.
What's frustrating is that these procedures are rarely necessary. The surgeries are mostly performed to alleviate the discomfort felt by doctors, parents and society as a whole—those who prefer set notions of gender. As Ambrose put it, intersex conditions "aren't threatening to the child, but they are threatening to the child's culture."
Ambrose wants to de-stigmatize intersex people and, in doing so, stop doctors from performing "normalizing" medical procedures on children. That's why, in addition to speaking last week, he and his partner, singer Eden Atwood, who's also intersex, launched The Interface Project. The locally based group documents the stories of intersex people from all over the globe and "brings visibility to a community that has been invisible for too long."
The Interface Project traces its activist roots back to the 1993 formation of the Intersex Society of North America and, with its growing prominence in the Missoula community, marks a homegrown example of a political movement that's gradually gaining traction.
"Things are changing," Ambrose said. "Things are changing very slowly."