Bold Idea: Anne Tamar-Mattis, 2008 Global Fellow and founder and director of Advocates for Informed Choice, says success is all about recognizing the people around you as your greatest assets.
Despite being the program director of San Francisco’s first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, and Transgender (LGBQT) community center in 2001, Anne Tamar-Mattis is loath to accept the title of groundbreaker. “It wasn’t like we were pioneering the idea of LGBQT community organizing,” she protests. “We had a community long before we had a center.” Having a community already established there, she says, made the job easier—she could simply ask the community what they needed to accomplish, and organize efforts and resources around it.
At that time, the LGBQT community was one of only a few resources for people with intersex conditions. It was a place of much-needed support in a world that was largely looking at intersex people—those born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy and that doesn’t seem to fit typical definitions of male or female—as having a physical flaw that surgery not only could correct, but ought to. As a result of this connection, Anne was familiar with the needs of the intersex community, but it took a much more personal turn when she met the person who would become her life partner, who is intersex.
As her circle of friends in this community grew, she found herself compelled by the stories of those who had been deeply injured by the medical treatment they had unwillingly received, or the lack of support they had suffered in trying to care for a loved one with an intersex condition.
At that point, she realized that she was the very resource that community needed.”When I went to law school,” Anne remembers, “I wanted to work in service of the LGBQT community. But I heard more and more intersex people saying, ‘Why isn’t there something the law can do for us?'”
An Opportunity to Effect Change
“There wasn’t someone else who had both the skills in the law, and the connections to the community, who was going to use these tools. I felt like I was the one to do it, because I was in the position to do it.”
One thing Anne quickly found in developing Advocates for Informed Choice, is that the usual legal advocacy tactics don’t work on behalf of the intersex community—for the simple reason that intersex conditions are relatively uncommon. “We don’t have the numbers to make a senator’s phone ring off the hook,” she reflects wryly. “We’re talking about one in 2,000. There’s a big difference in terms of political power. We have to do our work in other ways.”
But one of Anne’s biggest resources has proved to be not her education, or even her experience, but her personality.
“I see myself as a very opportunistic advocate. I’m light on my feet, and I shift plans when I have opportunity. I will always prioritize the work that lets us leverage resources.”
Practically, she says, that means designing a three- to five-year plan, and then adjusting it as new resources appear. Sometimes, it’s a big opportunity that comes in from the outside—like that time in 2011, when the World Health Organization invited Anne to speak at their conference on involuntary sterilization.
“If you’d said to me, which international body would you like to address, I’m not sure I would have come up with the World Health Organization.” Her laugh hints at a lingering incredulity over the opportunity. “But if they’re willing to put all those resources behind intersex conditions, I’m there!”
And sometimes, resources come in a less spectacular form—the appearance of people whose experience with the pain of nonconsensual surgery makes them invaluable guides to those trying to navigate life without it.
Identifying Her Greatest Asset
That’s the most consistent thing in Anne’s account—that people, their experiences, and their compassion, are the biggest assets in forming strategy and accomplishing goals. And the key in long-term success, says Anne, is protecting those assets…even if it means taking a break.
“If you are an activist or an advocate, you have to see yourself as your primary resource. You have to find a way to keep you sane that will let you survive long-term.
“It can be very traumatic to do advocacy in this field. I know people who have taken breaks for years, and then come back. I know people who continue to do advocacy in a behind-the-scenes way. There’s more than one way to support a movement.”
“We need elders in the community who have experience,” she adds. Longterm advocates are much more effective than those who put in three intense years and then leave, exhausted and spent. “You have to see yourself as a resource to be conserved.”
Each advocate is a unique asset, but what makes them all consistent is their access to the truth about their condition. The body- and soul-scarring mistakes of nonconsensual surgery, Anne says, are the result of decisions being made based on mythology, fear and speculation about what life in an intersex body would be like. There’s an assumption rampant among parents, doctors and society at large that intersex children are more emotionally and physically vulnerable, and that the only way to protect them is to attempt to normalize their bodies as soon as possible. In fact, by talking to intersex people—both those who have suffered nonconsensual surgery, and those who have escaped it—you find something entirely different.
“I’ve never talked to an intersex person that has said ‘I wish I wasn’t born intersex.’ They’d be a different person. And everybody wants to be who they are.”
“People’s stories are different, their genders are different, their bodies are different. But what is consistent is a desire for autonomy—the belief that intersex people should have the right to make decisions about their own body.”
Be Bold: In May 2013, AIC and their partners, including The Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against South Carolina, doctors and hospitals for performing sex-assignment surgery on an infant. The suit is the first of its kind, born out of the work of Anne and the advocates around her: those people she considers her greatest assets. Take stock of the people in your life who care about the issues you do, and consider how that community can amplify your impact. To learn more about AIC and this lawsuit, visit them on the web.
Image courtesy of Advocates for Informed Choice.