Political Notes: 2024 elections could bring Wiener allies on restricting intersex surgeries

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday February 12, 2024
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State legislative candidates Kathryn Lybarger, left, Jovanka Beckles, and Christopher Cabaldon could be allies to state Senator Scott Wiener's efforts to pass a bill restricting intersex surgeries should they be successful in their campaigns. Photos: Courtesy the candidates
State legislative candidates Kathryn Lybarger, left, Jovanka Beckles, and Christopher Cabaldon could be allies to state Senator Scott Wiener's efforts to pass a bill restricting intersex surgeries should they be successful in their campaigns. Photos: Courtesy the candidates

Over the course of four successive legislative sessions, starting in 2019, gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) repeatedly tried to pass legislation that would ban medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children. Each time the bill died in the face of stringent opposition from medical professionals and a lack of support from his legislative colleagues.

Having been revised in an attempt to attract a winning margin in the Senate's Committee on Business, Professions, and Economic Development, the most recent version of the bill would have required parents and doctors to postpone elective surgery on intersex children until they are 12 years of age and can take part in making such a medical decision. Yet the powerful California Medical Association and some parents had continued to lobby against the bill.

With no path forward for the bill in sight, Wiener made the decision at the start of the 2022 legislative session to shelve it for the foreseeable future. At the time he had pledged to reintroduce the bill at a later date when he felt it would survive a hearing before the Senate committee.

"It just has been a challenging committee for this bill," noted Wiener during a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

As the B.A.R. had noted two years ago, there needs to be a change in the makeup of the Senate panel before Wiener moves again to bring before it the restrictions on intersex surgeries in children. He opted against doing so following the 2022 elections for even-numbered state Senate seats.

Wiener now awaits the outcomes in this year's races for odd-numbered Senate districts to determine if he will revive the bill in 2025. A number of his Senate colleagues will be departing this December due to term limits, including several of the current members on the Senate committee who didn't support the bill in the past, which could result in a more receptive audience for his legislation come next year.

"I would love to see it reintroduced by me or someone else because it is an important bill," said Wiener, who is up for reelection this year to another four-year term. "Right now, I have no plans to introduce it this year."

With the future prospects for the legislation uncertain, the B.A.R. asked candidates running in several competitive Bay Area state legislative races what their position is on banning unnecessary surgery on intersex babies or youth. If supportive of doing so, the candidates were also asked if they would author a bill to enact a ban.

Based on their answers, they could provide Wiener with the legislative support he has been seeking should they win their Senate races. Three of the candidates running to succeed termed out state Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) in the East Bay's 7th Senate District that spans western Contra Costa and Alameda counties all expressed support for banning unnecessary surgeries on intersex children.

"My position is that I support the banning of unnecessary surgery on intersex babies and young people who are not old enough to understand the possible consequences and repercussions of body and potentially life altering surgery," wrote queer former Richmond city councilmember Jovanka Beckles, now an elected member of the board that oversees the AC Transit public transportation agency. "I would author legislation to this effect with those with lived experience and expertise in this area."

California Labor Federation President Kathryn Lybarger, who identifies as both lesbian and queer, wrote that "bodily autonomy is of utmost importance" in her response.

"I support an approach that centers education and support for families to emphasize acceptance, understanding and consent. I would author a bill to ban such unnecessary surgery," replied Lybarger, who lives with her wife, Nina Ackerberg, in Berkeley.

Lastly, Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, a straight ally, told the B.A.R., "I have not thought much about this; but I would be inclined to support such legislation."

Gay former West Sacramento mayor Christopher Cabaldon, seeking the open District 3 Senate seat that sprawls across a number of counties, from Contra Costa and Sonoma to Yolo and Sacramento, also told the B.A.R. he supported a legislative ban on the medical practice. Incumbent Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa), who is termed out this year, had voted against the intersex bill in 2020.

"I believe non-consensual, medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex infants and children, which are often performed for cosmetic reasons rather than for health, should be banned," wrote Cabaldon, who served as chief of staff for lesbian former state lawmaker Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) during her first term in the Assembly in the late 1990s. "Unlike the far-right that wants to police individuals' bodies, I believe the choice should be left until the individual is old enough to make an informed decision about their body."

Cabaldon added, "We need to protect the rights of intersex individuals, allowing them the autonomy to decide about their bodies at an appropriate age and in line with science and medicine, not bigotry, fear and religious fervor."

In the contest to succeed termed out Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) in his Assembly District 19 seat that covers the city's western neighborhoods, the two Democratic candidates both said they would sign on to such a bill.

"I do not support unnecessary surgeries on intersex babies and youth. I understand the incredible harm these surgeries can create and support legislation to bring an end to these unnecessary and harmful surgeries," responded District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who has two out siblings.

Educator David Lee, who has taught at San Francisco State University and Laney College, part of the East Bay's Peralta Community College District, told the B.A.R., "I believe that unnecessary surgery should not be performed on intersex babies/youth and would support this legislation."

Intersex is an umbrella term for differences in sex traits or reproductive anatomy. Approximately 1%-2% percent of people are born with variations in bodily sex characteristics.

There are many possible differences in genitalia, hormones, internal anatomy, or chromosomes. People are born with these differences or develop them in childhood.

Physicians will perform sex assignment and genital modification surgeries on intersex infants in order that they can be classified as either male or female. The procedures can entail infant vaginoplasties, clitoral reductions, or the removal of gonadal tissues.

Those opposed to the practices point out that the medical intervention can result in extreme scarring, chronic pain, incontinence, lost sexual sensation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and incorrect gender assignment. Both Human Rights Watch and the World Health Organization have condemned performing surgeries on intersex infants, while the United Nations deems doing so akin to torture

Wiener was able to get his legislative colleagues to pass a nonbinding resolution in 2018 that called for doctors to postpone performing surgeries on intersex individuals until they are able to give their informed consent. It remains to be seen if state lawmakers will take the next step to make it binding via passage of a bill.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko.

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

Due to the Presidents Day holiday, the Political Notes column will return Monday, February 26.

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