Out of the Shadows: Who's Funding the Intersex Rights Movement?

 Marina Kutukova/shutterstock

 Marina Kutukova/shutterstock

Intersex activist and writer, Hida Viloria, who uses the pronouns “s/he” and “he/r,” describes he/r personal narrative by using lyrics from a Prince song: “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand.” Viloria, who was born intersex—meaning s/he has reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit neatly within the conventional classifications of male or female—was not subjected to medical interventions as a child. Now, s/he is advocating for the end of such surgeries and fighting for equality and human rights for all intersex people.

Advocates like Viloria don't have many allies in philanthropy. A report last year found that worldwide, "There are very few funding opportunities explicitly available for intersex groups." 

That report was produced by a collaboration of the Global Action for Trans Equality (GATE), American Jewish World Service, and the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. All three work with intersex activists and support intersex groups.

Astraea has emerged as an important leader in this overlooked funding area. In 2015, it launched the Intersex Human Rights Fund “[t]o honor the resilience, creativity, and growth of intersex activism and to ensure the human rights of intersex people.”

The fund supports organizations and campaigns led by intersex activists fighting for the “[h]uman rights, bodily autonomy, physical integrity, and self-determination of intersex people.” During last year’s Intersex Awareness Day, Astraea announced its third round of grantmaking out of the fund. Grants totaled close to $300,000 and represented the largest cycle of grants awarded out of the fund to date.

Astraea’s grants were awarded to 37 intersex led groups across 28 countries in the world. Funding went to support activities such as advocating for improved legal reform to end the practice of so-call "normalizing surgery" on intersex people; promoting anti-discrimination policies; highlighting intersex rights violations; and increased collaboration amount human rights groups and educational institutions. Some of the organizations Astraea is supporting are working in countries of the world that are among the most dangerous for LGBTI people.

Astraea's grants go a long way, considering that the report mentioned above found that in 2016, "just under half (49.0%) of intersex groups surveyed had annual budgets of US$5,000 or less and more than three-quarters (76.5%) had budgets of less than US$10,000. Only about one in five (19.1%) intersex groups received US$10,000 or more in external funding in 2016."

Not only are these organizations operating on a shoe string, many are operating in places with reactionary and repressive climates. For example, despite the fact that lawmakers legalized same-sex marriage in Mexico in 2015, violence and discrimination against LGBTI people remains widespread. Vivir y Sery is a new Intersex Human Rights Fund grantee based in Mexico. The group received a grant for its work increasing political pressure on those perpetrating intersex genital mutilation (IGM), raising awareness on IGM practices, and working together with lawmakers and human rights advocates to change the current social structures that negatively affect intersex people.

Russia is another a scary place for anyone who's not heterosexual. While homosexuality has been decriminalized in Russia, hate crimes of LGBTI people have doubled over the past five years. The increase in violence is being blamed, in part, on the Putin’s “gay propaganda” ban. Having only been established in 2017, Intersex Russia received support from the fund for their work raising awareness of intersex people in Russia and the challenges they face. The grant also went to support the organization's work to eradicate IGM in Russia and to increase policymaking providing legal protections for intersex people across the country.

Although South Africa moved to end the practice of IGM; violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people continue to be widespread—and those crimes are more often than not go largely under-reported. The South African based outfit Iranti-Org received a recent grant from Astraea’s Intersex Human Rights Fund to support its work helping “local and regional lesbian, trans, intersex and gender non-conforming (LTIGNC) movements in South Africa and across the continent use media as a platform for mobilization and shifting public dialogue.”

As we've often noted, funding for LGBTI causes has increased dramatically over the past fifteen years. But there are still a lot of gaps in support, including addressing the priority issues of the trans and intersex communities. And while some funders, including the Arcus Foundation, are now giving more attention to trans issues, trying to making up for lost time, there are still very few funders that directly support intersex groups.

The good news is that this rights movement is growing. And while the Astraea Foundation is still among the few supporters of the movement, it wouldn't be surprising to see other funders turn their attention here in the next few years.