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What Is Intersex?

Intersex is an umbrella term that describes the many different ways people can be born with biological traits that are not commonly regarded as unambiguously ‘male’ or ‘female’.

While there are many documented types of intersex variations, the term broadly refers to natural variations of the genitals, gonads, chromosomes, and/or hormones. These variations may be observable from birth, become apparent through puberty, or might not be detected until much later in life.

This makes it very difficult to know exactly how many people have intersex variations and indeed many intersex people may never find out about their intersex status. Different statistics suggest a number between 0.05% and 1.7% of the population; making it comparable to the number of people with red hair. This seems like a lot of people, so why don’t we hear more about intersex people and what they go through?

A lot of this has to do with the shame and stigma that intersex people face. There is a lot of social pressure on intersex people and their families to reinforce binary concepts of male and female. This can mean that the topic is treated with a lot of secrecy, leaving intersex people feeling isolated or misunderstood. There is a desperate need for intersex-inclusive education to help break down this stigma and encourage more discussions about intersex.

The focus of intersex activism today is on the human rights issues faced by intersex people. Due to the perception that intersex bodies need to be “normalised” in order to conform to an unambiguous binary, many intersex people and their families, are pressured into unnecessary surgery that can have permanent and detrimental effects. Where intersex variations are detected in infants, decisions regarding surgery are made without the consent of the infant and often made by parents who have not been given adequate information by medical professionals.  One of the most important global movements in terms of intersex rights is the push to preserve bodily autonomy and protect intersex children’s right to consent.

 

Key Points

  • Being intersex does not override, or determine, how a person identifies or chooses to present themselves. The choice to disclose intersex status does not reduce the importance of a person’s other identities.
  •  The most important issue facing intersex people today is preserving the right to make informed decisions about their own bodies.
  • Disclosure of intersex status does not give another person permission to ask questions about anatomy or medical procedures, as this is deeply personal information.
  • It is important to be conscious of the language used around intersex variations, to avoid terms that may be seen as pejorative or pathologizing. For example the term hermaphrodite, once used to describe all forms of intersex, is now considered archaic, inaccurate, and derogatory.
  • Care should be taken not to speak for intersex people in LGBTIQ+ spaces, or to use intersex to talk about issues that do not directly affect intersex people.