By Josh Watkins
When Mo Cortez was five years old, he woke up in a hospital bed, peeled back the sheets, and discovered a large red “X” on his groin. Cortez was born intersex—with ambiguous genitalia—and surgery was an attempt to “normalize” him. Instead, it made it him feel dehumanized, he says, “like a Frankenstein.” But despite his many challenges since then, Cortez says he has found truth in his identity, and has used his own experiences as motivation to tirelessly advocate for other intersex youth and individuals.
When Cortez was born, doctors insisted they perform surgery to make his genitalia appear more distinctly female. “[This] was based on a terrible theory by Dr. John Money,” Cortez explains. “He believed that nurture [was more important than] nature—that if you raised a child as a certain sex, they would accept that sex.” In other terms, if a child’s social circles were made to believe that a child is a particular sex, the child would accept that sex.
Cortez’s parents originally fought the doctors on their suggestions—turning down the option for surgery. However, when he was five years old, an anonymous person informed Child Protective Services that Cortez’s now-divorced mother was raising a little boy as a girl. The claim pushed her to go through with Cortez’s surgery.
Growing up in a conservative Mexican and Mormon household, Cortez describes his childhood as difficult. His brother and sister joined the military when he was in kindergarten, leaving him to look after his mother who suffered from occasional seizures. “With my mother being a single parent—and with the cocktail of pharmaceuticals she had to take daily—my issues of betrayal and my own sexuality were on the back burner while growing up,” Cortez recalls.
Through his teen years, Cortez was a loner. He only socialized when he played the violin at Mariachi gigs, and didn’t begin dating until his senior year in high school. Cortez explains that dating with an intersex body can be a challenge. “Before I hook up with anyone, I always give the disclaimer that ‘I was born intersex and that means…,’” he says. “That gets old real quick and gives me so much anxiety that I’ve just quit dating.” On the other hand, he says, those who were not surgically altered at birth “seem to live happy and dynamic sex lives.”
As an adult, however, Cortez has found power in his voice—standing up for both himself and for intersex youth. On December 14, 2016, Cortez attended the Houston GLBT Political Caucus’ LGBT Legislative Community Forum. The room, he remembers, was packed, and many state legislators were in attendance. Cortez nervously stood in front of the panel and asked if they had interest in supporting legislation that would protect intersex minors. One panelist said yes.
Soon after, Cortez received word of preliminary language for an intersex protective bill. In March, the draft was submitted and assigned a Senate bill number—SB 1342. “It took just three months to introduce one of the first protection bills for intersex folks by intersex folks,” Cortez says.
SB 1342 is designed to help prevent nonconsensual genital surgeries on minors with intersex traits. In laments terms, the bill protects intersex infants and youth from enduring surgery or hormone treatment until they are old enough to consent. The only exception is if the condition is life endangering. “SB1342 is necessary in that this hits close to home for me and other intersex folks,” Cortez says. “I don’t want this to happen to other intersex children. I do not want them to suffer as I have. Whenever these kids receive these nonconsensual sex change surgeries, they suffer a lifetime of urinary problems, sexual dysfunction, continued surgeries due to tearing of scar tissue and hormonal imbalances, PTSD, trust issues, and other ailments.”
But where there’s progress, there’s also regression. On September 1, SB 4—a “show me your papers” immigration law that targets minorities in Texas—will go into effect. As a trans and intersex Latino, Cortez fears not only for himself, but for the Latinx community in Texas. “I’ve read stories where U.S. citizens were not believed by the Border Patrol and they were held in detention centers for years on end without any legal protections,” Cortez says.
Having female secondary characteristics, Cortez worries that if he were detained, stripped down, and searched, law enforcement would think his forms of ID (which list “male” as his sex) are fake or stolen.
SB 1342 is necessary in combating laws like SB 4, Cortez says, noting that—as of today—the U.S. has no protections for intersex people. Matla and Chile are the only other countries where intersex protective policies such as SB 1342 have been considered. “A week after myself, [Houston intersex activist] Koomah, and InterACT advocates filed this bill at the Texas legislature, others were following our lead in Nevada,” he says.
Cortez has also traveled to Austin to lobby legislatures on behalf of the bill and has advocated for intersex issues on the radio. As long as you keep talking and sharing the truth, the audience will hear you, he says.
In the future, Cortez hopes to see more awareness and informative campaigns around intersex issues. “Share stories of intersex activists from around the world and share articles about the science of intersex [people],” Cortez encourages.