The Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law

Applying International Human Rights Law to Change an Abusive Medical Paradigm: Ending Non-Consensual Medically Unnecessary Intersex Surgeries

A discussion with Kyle Knight, Researcher, LGBT Rights at Human Rights Watch and Anne Tamar-Mattis, attorney at interACT.


Based on a discredited medical theory popularized in the 1960s, doctors today perform irreversible and medically unnecessary surgery on intersex children – often in infancy – with the stated aim of making it easier for them to grow up “normal.” The results are often catastrophic, the supposed benefits are largely unproven, and there are rarely urgent health considerations requiring immediate, irreversible intervention. The operations amount to violations of rights to bodily autonomy, freedom from torture, and health--and are coming under increasing scrutiny around the world. But can human rights arguments alone change a medical paradigm?


Kyle Knight is a researcher in the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch. Prior to joining the LGBT rights program, he was a fellow at the Williams Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles and a Fulbright scholar in Nepal. As a journalist he has worked for Agence France-Presse in Nepal and for IRIN, the UN’s humanitarian news service, reporting from Burma, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. He has previously worked for UNAIDS, the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, and in the children’s rights and health and human rights divisions at Human Rights Watch. He studied cultural anthropology at Duke University.

Anne Tamar-Mattis spent six years as the Director of the National Youth Talkline at Lavender Youth Recreation & Information Center, a national peer-support line for LGBTQ youth. She became the first Program Director for the San Francisco LGBT Community Center in 2001. In 2003 she took a hiatus to attend law school and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law in 2006.

Tamar-Mattis founded interACT with the support of fellowships from Equal Justice Works (2006) and Echoing Green (2008). She has been an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law since 2008 where she teaches Sexual Orientation & the Law.

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