2011-10-28

Jonathon Conte: Channeling painful emotions into Intactivism

Jonathon Conte has dealt with painful emotions ever since he discovered that he was circumcised. He moved to San Francisco, California, and became an active member of the Bay Area Intactivists.

Transcript
(slightly modified)

My name is Jonathon Conte. I am a victim of male genital mutilation, and I am an intactivist.

I first learned of circumcision when I was about 14 or 15 years old; I saw a picture of an intact penis on the Internet, and it puzzled me a bit because it was something that I had never seen before—I didn't quite understand what I was looking at. It was through that experience that I began to realize that the body I had thought [is] the body [with which] I was born [is] in fact not the body [with which] I was born—that part of [my body] had been cut away from me, and I struggled with that for quite some time.

I went through a period of denial, where I understood that I had undergone a circumcision, but I felt that it hadn't impacted me; I felt that the effects of [such a surgery are] not significant, [but] once I began to look into the procedure further—the ramifications of removing that part of the penis—it began to really take its toll on me.

I suffered some incredibly [emotionally-low] periods during the next few years, where I struggled with a feeling of incompleteness both physically and sexually. I struggled with trying to understand how something like this could have been done to me—how I could have been the victim of such a heinous thing when the people who allowed it to happen to me should have been the ones looking out for me.

So, there was this period where [I had] a lot of internalized emotion:

  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Resentment

and a variety of other [kinds of distress] that I was really struggling to deal with. I didn't have anybody [with whom] to talk about this. I felt very isolated. I felt hopeless. I felt that what had been done to me was so deeply impacting that [the thought of it] was an incredible burden for me to bear, and I didn't know how to deal with it, so I kept it bottled up for many years; it took a lot of time for me to reach the point where I could publicly discuss both my circumcision as well as how I feel about the practice [in general].

As I began to do more research about circumcision, I discovered the Intactivist Movement, and [I] began to understand that I [am] not alone and that in fact, many other men [have felt] the same way that I had felt growing up as a child.

As I mentioned, when I was young, I never even considered the fact that part of me had been cut off—no one ever sat down with me and said:

When you were a boy, we cut off part of your penis.

[I mean], it was never a fact [or even a possibility] that [could have ever] crossed my mind. As I began to learn more about the procedure and [its] side effects and risks, I stumbled across the Intactivist Movement and learned about early efforts—Marilyn Milos and NOCIRC—and I [have] always kind of considered the Bay Area to be the birth place of the Intactivist Movement. So, I moved out to San Francisco a little over a year ago, and one of the things that I really looked forward to doing upon having moved out here was becoming much more involved in stopping this practice—this practice of the forced genital cutting of boys.

The longer that I've been involved with the effort, the easier it's been for me to take a public face and talk with people about it. I think that talking about it is crucial; if we don't talk about it, it's never going to end, and it's got to end; it has to end—it absolutely [must] end.

  • The forced genital cutting of children is not a parental right.

  • The forced genital cutting of children is not a religious right.

  • Amputating healthy body parts from children is not a legitimate medical practice.

If I, as a victim—and other victims—don't speak out against this practice, it will continue, and more men will continue to experience the painful emotions that I've had to deal with, and I don't want that to happen; I want people to be completely educated about the wide-ranging impact—both the physical [and] psychological ramifications [that] this procedure is [imposing on] men.

Intactivism is a way for me to channel the negative emotions that I feel about what was done to me into something positive—something that can help to make things better for men in the future. So, one of the reasons that I find myself so heavily involved in the movement is that I don't know how else to use these emotions that are inside of me—emotions that I'm going to be dealing with, I suspect, for the rest of my life.

For me, activism is therapeutic [in] that it helps me to deal with my emotions [and] at the same time, it helps others.

The first thing that I did as far as public activism was I participated in the San Francisco Pride Parade last year; I marched with the intactivist contingent. I was hesitant to do this at first—I was a little nervous about being in public and holding a sign, and making my stance so clear—but at the end of the day, I felt that I had to [do so]—I had to be there, I had to take a stand, [and] I had to do whatever I could to try to push the public dialog about what is happening to millions of men in this country. After completing my first Pride march, I felt a little more comfortable with it; I felt very energized after the march—I felt I had done the right thing, and I began to participate in other public events that were held by the Bay Area Intactivists, which is the local intactivist group.

In these last 12 months, I think I've grown a lot. For a variety of reasons, I've become much more comfortable discussing this issue in depth with people. So, I was thrilled to participate with Pride this past weekend, both at the booth and in the parade; I think we had a wonderful response. So, it was great. I was thrilled to be able to do it.

As I mentioned, during the past few months, I've had a lot of opportunities to learn how to talk to people (particularly strangers) about the issue without feeling nervous. I'm one of the people who [is] fairly heavily involved with:

The San Francisco Male Genital Mutilation Bill

which is going to be on the ballot in November. [NOTE: Not anymore; it has been ruled that only state-wide law may restrict circumcision because only state-wide law may restrict the declawing of cats.]

I was one of the volunteers collecting signatures for the ballot initiative. I personally turned in over 300 signatures for the effort; during the period of time in which we were collecting signatures, I spoke with many many many people about this issue. Often, people were already educated about it and completely supportive; sometimes people had never really given the issue much thought, and after having discussed it with them for a few minutes, they completely understood that it [is] a human rights issue—that all children [actually] do deserve the right to be protected from physical violence and abuse.

So, through that period, I began to feel much more comfortable addressing this issue, particularly on a one-to-one, very personal basis with people. So, no, I wasn't really nervous [at the march for the Pride Parade] yesterday. I was excited; we had an amazing turnout at the event, and I was just thrilled to take part in it.

From time to time, I do encounter people who are hesitant to really delve into the human rights aspect of circumcision (forcing it upon children who [cannot] consent), and I just try to stick to the facts.

  • I try to address the issues of necessity: There is no necessity for the procedure—there's no national medical organization in the world that recommends it.

  • I try to talk about the risks involved in the procedure, including death—a lot of people aren't aware that infants do die from circumcision every year in the United States.

  • I discuss some of the impacts of the procedure—lifelong, both physical and psychological.

I find that while a lot of people may be willing to defend the practice of circumcision, not a lot of [those people] are very familiar with the functions of the foreskin; that really troubles me, particularly [when such people are] doctors. Some doctors who are strong proponents of the procedure are sometimes extraordinarily ignorant about this part of the body and what the repercussions of amputating it are; they don't always understrand the sexual functions of the foreskin, the protective functions, and the list of side effects that are results of taking it away from a man, so I try to educate people about that, and do my best to address whatever concerns they bring up to me.

There are so many opportunities that we get each day to help people to understand the severity of what is being done to baby boys in this country, and I think that it's crucial that people take the opportunities that are presented to them—to use whatever strengths they have—to help [end] this practice.

[Circumcision] doesn't just affect men who have been circumcised; it affects their partners, it affects their families, it affects their friends, it affects people in the medical field who are dealing with the procedure—the ones who are [pressured] to perform it, [and the ones] who are perhaps not performing it themselves but who are subjected to being around [the practice] on a daily basis.

This is something that I believe has a severe toll on people. All of us are affected in one way or another by what I see as a human rights violation—a blatant human rights violation—[which] is incredibly widespread and right under our noses, and yet people are unfortunately sometimes hesitant to address it with the respect and with the deligence that it deserves.

[There are many ways] for a young person to help educate people about the harm of circumcision, and to help stop the practice:

  • Get involved with [a] local intactivist group.

  • Help do public events—booths at community events—to try to educate people.

  • Attend demonstrations [and] protests.

  • [Write] a blog.

  • [Make] art.

  • etc.

There are so many ways today—particularly with the Internet—that [someone] can use [his or her] voice in [his or her] own way to help spread information about the harm of the practice of genital mutilation. So, I would encourage anyone who feels affected by this (or compelled to help) to do it! Just do it!

Whatever strengths you have, pursue them. You—along with other intactivists—can make a difference. We are all in this together, and it's not going to be one person [who] stops this practice—it's going to be an effort of thousands of people who pull together and [use] their combined strengths; that is how we are going to finally end the genital mutilation of children in this world.

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