Intersex: Let’s Talk About the “I” in LGBTQIA+
Intersex is one of the less-frequently discussed identities included in the LGBTQIA+ acronym. Lately I’ve had a few conversations with friends and family members who have never heard of the term intersex. Intersex visibility is important, because up to 2% of people are born intersex. That’s the same amount of people who are born with red hair! Yet, so many people are still uninformed about the realities of intersexuality. So let’s look at what the term actually means.
What is Intersex?
Intersex is an umbrella term that’s used to describe an individual who is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the traditional definition of anatomically male or female bodies. In short, their anatomy can be a mixture of both biologically male and female. For example, a baby might be born with a penis and scrotum and be assigned male at birth, but might also have a uterus inside. Or some intersex individuals might have ambiguous genitalia, such as a baby who is born with a vulva, vaginal opening, and enlarged clitoris that might resemble a penis. Intersex individuals can also have both XX (female) and XY (male) chromosomes, or they can have chromosomes that aren’t typically associated with their sex organs.
In sum, there are endless variations of intersex, and each individual’s experience is unique. People who are born intersex can have variations in their genitalia, hormones, internal anatomy, or chromosomes. Intersex status is not based solely on genitals, and we shouldn’t fixate on that. interACT, an organization that advocates for intersex youth, states: “If you’re asking about intersex genitalia—and please don’t ask real people invasive personal questions—there is no standard answer.” Even among individuals who are not intersex, no two genitals look the same. And lastly, not all intersex people have genital differences.
What happens if a baby is Intersex
Historically, the term hermaphrodite was used to describe intersex individuals. This term is outdated and considered a derogatory slur, so please don’t use it. It has been associated with a lot of stigma and shame. Unfortunately, the term intersex is still often associated with stigma and shame. For this reason, many babies who are born intersex are forced to undergo unnecessary and irreversible surgeries to change their genetalia. This might include reducing the size of the clitoris, removing testes, creating a vagina, etc. These surgeries often have no medical purpose, and they can create lasting harm, such as pain, nerve damage, infertility, and the need for lifelong hormone replacement therapy. This secrecy, shame, and side effects from surgery can also lead to a great deal of psychological harm for the individual. There are many organizations who advocate for ending unwanted genital alterations, which are often called intersex genital mutilations (IGM). These organizations advocate delaying these surgeries until individuals are old enough to decide for themselves if they want to surgically change their genitalia.
How does one know if they are Intersex?
Some individuals might be labeled intersex at birth, and some might not discover these traits until puberty or later. People can know they’re intersex in many different ways. Some of the most common, according to interACT, include:
- At birth, when another person sees genital differences;
- At puberty, when changes happen too early, in unexpected ways, or not at all;
- In adulthood, when infertility or other problems reveal internal differences;
- In adulthood, when learning that adults covered up childhood medical interventions.
So I’m curious–if having red hair is “normal,” (meaning that there isn’t stigma or shame attached to it), then why isn’t being intersex considered “normal”? They have the same prevalence rates. And further, with millions of intersex people in the world, are there really only two biological sexes (i.e., male and female)? Should intersex be considered a third biological sex that can be assigned at birth? Some countries, such as Germany, already allow for this. But perhaps it’s not that simple. The Intersex Society of North America wrote, “Nature doesn’t decide where the category of ‘male’ ends and the category of ‘intersex’ begins, or where the category of ‘intersex’ ends and the category of ‘female’ begins. Humans decide.” Maybe biological sex isn’t binary, and should instead be viewed on a spectrum. What are your thoughts?
Sex VS Gender
Quick note: it’s important to remember that biological sex is not the same thing as gender. Biological sex is what we’re assigned at birth–either male or female–which is typically based on our external genitalia and our chromosomes. Gender is a person’s understanding of themselves, their identities, expressions, and societal roles. For many people, their biological sex and gender are the same. But for others, this is not the case. Over the last few years, gender has come to be accepted as a spectrum. Should biological sex be viewed on a spectrum too?
I think it’s important that we spread awareness and education about intersexuality, because doing so can help decrease secrecy, shame, and discrimination. Being intersex is common, and for the most part, intersex individuals are perfectly healthy. Please continue to research and have conversations with your friends and family about intersexuality. The more people do this, the more change we will see. If you want to learn more or need help connecting to resources, interACT is a great place to start.
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