Why you should care
Because they liken choosing your body to choosing whom you love.
Look out your window on Sunday. If you’re in New York City, you’ll see mainstays of the annual pride parade: rainbow streamers, colorful costumes, purple floats. Innuendo will be par for the course, sexuality celebrated in some not-so-safe-for-work ways. And so, the 6-foot-tall penis lifted above the crowd won’t be so surprising in and of itself. But there’s a twist to this phallus that may make parade watchers do a double take: It’s uncircumcised.
Yep, the foreskin will stand erect this pride month. It’s being hoisted by Intact America, the nation’s largest anti-circumcision group, which is dedicated to making the snipping of male infants an LGBT issue in addition to other queer planks such as ensuring protection in the workplace and ending the “trans panic” legal defense. The mission alignment is far from perfect, but gay men are among the LGBT community’s biggest supporters in terms of membership and donor ranks, according to Intact America executive director Georganne Chapin.
Organizations like Chapin’s are gathering nationally and attending pride events in places such as Boston and San Francisco (the Bay Area has seen an increase in “intactivist” marchers at pride events, from three in 2011 to about 70 in 2016). That strategic alignment has at least increased publicity, says Intact America, which reports 143 media mentions from June 2016 to May 2017 compared with just seven over the same time the previous year. They’re buoyed by younger generations less likely to support circumcision, with only one third of folks under 30 saying it should be routine, compared with almost two-thirds of people over 65, according to a 2015 YouGov study.
The question amounts to who should decide what genitals you get to keep.
With hashtags like #ForeskinPride and the slogan “the foreskin’s out of the closet,” Intact America and others hope to stimulate the debate on an issue that is far from settled globally but has often been a nonstarter in the U.S. Certainly, there hasn’t been a widespread trend of queer activists actually adopting the cause. “Advocates have had their hands full with numerous, pressing issues in the last five years,” including marriage equality and employment discrimination, says Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law scholar at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. “Circumcision regulation has not been one of them.”
But the intactivists are making a strategic shift, increasingly tying their cause to health concerns and queer-friendly stances on the value of bodily self-governance. When David Grant, a gay volunteer, read about the negative side effects of circumcision, it “was like reading a diary — it was my total life story,” he says. Having suffered from physical complications that included needing lubricants for normal sexual activity, he saw similarities with intersex individuals who are born with genitalia that are cut when doctors encourage parents to make a gender decision at birth.
There are many religious and cultural barriers to studying the long-term negative impacts of circumcision, including well-established norms of the practice in the U.S. Around four-fifths of American males have gone under the knife, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, cite studies that show increased risk for urinary tract infections and HIV contraction for uncircumcised males. In 2012, though, the academy’s report was disputed by 38 European physicians who said the findings were skewed by “cultural bias.”
There is some evidence that intact genitalia could have psychological benefits. Some members of the Jewish community seem to think so: Hundreds of rabbis now offer brit shalom, a non-cutting naming ceremony for Jewish and interfaith babies. While women did not have a statistically significant preference, according to one study published in the August 2015 Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, homosexual men held more positive views of, and a strong preference for, intact penises. And in a voluntary online survey in January, more than 1,000 men who believed they were harmed by their (unconsented to) circumcision reported psychological damage and physical maladies, including scarring, insensitivity and erectile dysfunction.
“Gay men are not disproportionately affected, but they are disproportionately aware, because they are more inclined to take an honest look at sexuality,” says Tim Hammond, the survey’s author. The question amounts to who should decide what genitals you get to keep, he argues: “It’s almost like asking who should decide whom you should love.” While some might disagree, Chapin views non-consensual circumcision as a human rights issue: “We’re where LGBT rights was 20 years ago. The next step would be for [the queer community] to adopt it as one of their principles, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Indeed, the LGBT groups OZY reached out to, including the Family Equality Council and the Human Rights Campaign, either did not respond or declined to comment. They might join the conversation if they saw a public health benefit or harm from banning the practice, Kreis says, but “the focus of anti-circumcision advocates to date has really been about the ethics of the practice.” Even Chapin admits the issue is under-studied, since sexuality research is “very expensive,” and relies on honest answers to uncomfortable questions. While the American Civil Liberties Union and the anti-female genital mutilation crowd could be supportive, Chapin recognizes that most advocacy groups are loath to dilute their goals. “They feel they have a hard enough row to hoe without adopting another non-mainstream issue,” she says.
If the anti-circumcision movement is to become part of the equality canon, it may need to draw on its historically supportive advocates, including lesbian partners. One couple agonized over the decision in Family Values: Two Moms and Their Son, published in 1993. “We were trying so hard to get him into the world in one piece,” wrote author Phyllis Burke. “The idea of snipping something off him when he got here seemed unconscionable.”