Intersex 101

If ‘intersex’ refers to biological variation, is it really an identity?

It is important to understand that intersex characteristics are present from birth, regardless of when they may be detected, and represent very specific variations in sexual characteristics. The idea of an intersex “identity” or “pride” commonly misunderstands that endosex (those born with typical sex characteristics) people are able to make a choice to be identified as intersex. Instead intersex “identity” should be understood as a term to describe the diversity of intersex experiences, including those that are heteronormative. Meanwhile intersex “pride” perhaps describes those who are out and visible and fighting for human rights. As a descriptive term that identifies a number of human rights issues, it’s important that intersex is understood specifically, without being co-opted by other movements.

What happens to people with intersex bodies?

Due to significant social and medical pressure, intersex people and the parents of intersex children are pushed to “correct” traits that do not conform with more typical sex characteristics. In many cases this involves medically unnecessary surgery, and a chance of needing to take hormones or other medications for the rest of your life.

Even worse, this is often done without the informed consent of the intersex individual. Parents are pushed towards these medical interventions long before a child is able to consent, or even present a gender identity. Even as adults, intersex persons can be pressured into making decisions without the best available information offered first.

It’s an issue that’s particularly difficult to deal with. Doctors are often quick to put the blame on the demands of the parents, parents can often feel like they weren’t given enough information to make the best possible decisions. When there is oversight, it is often in the hands of those without enough experience, such as the family courts. The upshot is that medical intervention is still performed on intersex people without their consent. This is why advocates are currently pushing for legislative prohibition / protection.

What are sex hormones?

Hormones are substances produced in the body that help instruct other parts of the body when and how to act in a particular way. When talking about sex and gender, there are a number of hormones that tell the body how to grow in a “male” or “female” way. More specifically these are referred to as sex hormones, and include Progesterone, Estrogen, and Testosterone.

What is progesterone?

Progesterone is a female sex hormone that specifically regulates breast development, pregnancy, and menstruation. While not typically prescribed to transgender people, it is often used to trigger a female puberty in intersex children who have undergone medical intervention.

What is estrogen?

Estrogen is a female sex hormone that builds and maintains female sex characteristics. It’s interaction with progesterone means that it can be taken orally as a contraceptive, and to alleviate certain menstrual disorders. It’s also the key hormone used in hormone therapy, to either replace lost estrogen, or override the presence of testosterone and encourage female development.

What is testosterone?

Testosterone is a male sex hormone that builds and maintains male sex characteristics. Typically it’s absorbed through the skin through either a gel or patch, but is also commonly injected into the muscle where it is absorbed over a number of weeks. It is often used as a growth hormone to replace lost testosterone, or to override the presence of estrogen and encourage male development.

What are hormone suppressors? How do they work?

Hormones trigger cell activity by connecting to molecules known as hormone receptors. Hormone suppressors are compounds that can bind to hormone receptors without triggering the same cell activity. This can be used to stall the onset of puberty, until an age that a minor can consent to transition. Or can be used in conjunction with hormone therapy to help enhance the effects of estrogen or testosterone.