Below is a list of answered questions, with responses from a variety of respected intersex organisations to give you a relatively broad idea about intersex. What it is, what it isn't, what it's not etc. In my limited experience, and it is limited given the wider scope of the world, people hear about Intersex and because they have never come across the term they will, naturally, have questions.
You have no idea how much I want to say 'there is no such thing as a stupid question', but I seriously can't. Some people are morons, and some people ask questions they know are hurtful. But that's alienating to say.
Like so many in the LGBTQ community, intersex bodied persons often have to access god-like reserves of patience to educate not only their family and peers, but their doctors too.
I hope that these frequently asked questions will help answer some of the niggling things one your mind concerning intersex and we can avoid reactions like those one on the right (I thank you, Liz Lemon & Leslie Knope).
If there is something else you would like to know then please ask via the Contact section on the website or Tweet @suztemko.
What is intersex?
“Intersex” refers to someone’s biological sex. It’s an umbrella term that describes someone with a combination of sex characteristics that puts you somewhere outside the binary “male” and “female” boxes. These characteristics aren’t always completely visible or obvious, such as chromosomes, internal reproductive organs, or someone’s reactions to sex hormones! For example, someone like Lauren was born with XY (typically male) chromosomes and internal testes, but she also was born with a vagina and developed breasts at puberty.
The reason someone is intersex can vary because intersex covers many different conditions that result in a difference of sexual development (DSD). However, someone who is intersex can and often will look just like a typical male or female! Biological sex does not define your gender. Most intersex people identify as either male or female but, just like non-intersex people, some of us identify as gender non-conforming, genderqueer, agender, etc. The most important take away when learning about intersex people is that when it comes to biological sex, things are not so black and white. There are a lot of interesting and unique possibilities in between “male” and “female,” making it a spectrum or a continuum.
Some Intersex also mark their identity as intersex. These people generally reject normative, exclusive male and female sex identification categories. In some cases, a person might identify simply as intersex, or as [insert gender here] with an intersex condition, or an intersex [insert gender here].
Sometimes people born intersex require medically necessary surgery, but most of the time they do not. Doctors have been known to operate on intersex people without their consent, and we support transparent conversations between intersex people and their doctors. It’s important that intersex people are aware of the irreversible consequences of elective surgery or hormone replacement therapy before making any decisions about their bodies.
What is trans?
“Trans” is short-hand for “transgender.” Transgender refers to people who were assigned a particular sex at birth, but identify as a different one (their gender identity). Some trans people transition so that they live aligned with their gender identity, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth.
Some people who identify as trans choose to have surgeries or take hormones to help direct the body’s growth and align it with their gender identity. Many trans people throughout history have fought for body-changing medical procedures, but there is also a group of trans people who choose not to have surgeries or take hormone replacement.
The most important thing is helping each person make the most informed and thoughtful decisions as possible. Each body and identity is different, and each person’s experience in their body is different. Be empowered in your care, and make decisions that are right for you!
What are the differences between the two? (Gender & sex)
To understand the differences between transgender and intersex, we must know the difference between SEX and GENDER IDENTITY.
A person’s SEX refers to how someone’s genitals and plumbing (chromosomes, gonads, etc) developed when they were in the womb. A person’s GENDER IDENTITY refers to how a person feels (or identifies) - their deeply held sense of whether they are a man or woman (or something other than those two choices).
Identity-wise, everyone is in the same boat. People are typically raised as boys or girls. Most people (intersex or not) are comfortable with that upbringing - their body, gender identity, and they way they were raised are all aligned.
But some people (intersex or not) may feel that the sex they were assigned at birth and the way they were raised are not entirely right, and they choose to transition to make everything match their gender identity. (You can’t change someone’s gender identity - like sexual orientation, it’s an innate part of someone’s self.)
Anyone can identify as transgender. But not all intersex people feel like they are transgender, and the vast majority of transgender people do not have intersex/DSD medical conditions.
What are some similarities?
The biggest similarities between trans(T) and intersex(I) are also felt amongst most LGB communities as well. The feelings of shame and secrecy that people in sex or gender minorities feel is so common, and it’s important that we all support each other. The majority of the world has a hard time accepting or understanding our bodies and identities, and that can provide for some really hard times for LGBTQI people.
One similarity is that when we talk about ourselves, people seem to get caught up on the question: “what are your genitals like?” Even Katie Couric (the typically honorable reporter) asked Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox about their genitals and whether any surgery had been done. Laverne called Katie out on the point-blank question and shared that it was harmful and invasive to ask, even akin to sexual harassment. It often IS harmful to ask point-blank questions about a person’s genitals when you are trans (or have a DSD or are anyone, for that matter.) In the end, genitals are here for our body processes and for sexy times. Our genitals don’t require full transparency to the world about what they look like - Genitals (ours and everyone else’s) deserve respect & love! And everyone has different looking genitals!
Can someone be both intersex and trans?
Sure–they’re so different, it’s kind of like asking if someone can have green eyes and also feel like a guy.
Intersex/DSD means having a body that developed in a diverse way in the womb. It’s almost like eye color or hair color. The way your body is at birth is unique to you, just like having green eyes, brown hair, or freckles.
So just like you can have green eyes and identify as trans, you can also have an intersex body and identify as trans.
That being said, not everyone who has an intersex body/DSD and has transitioned will identify as trans. For instance, when a baby is born with genitals that look different than usual (which is the case with some intersex conditions/DSD), some parents and doctors may arbitrarily choose to raise the child as either a boy or a girl, but the child might feel strongly, when they are old enough to say so, that their gender identity is different than the choice made by the parents and doctor. Sometimes these kids transition early on and may not want to be labeled or identify as transgender. Or they may. In the end (just like with everything else!), you have to ask people to tell you how they identify.
How do we know the correct gender of a child with an intersex condition?
We won't know the child's gender until they are old enough to communicate it to us. We recommend that the child be assigned a gender based on the best prediction, and allow them to determine for themself once they are old enough to do so. Irreversible surgeries on infants should be avoided to give them the widest range of choices when they are older. Performing surgeries will not eliminate the possibility that the prediction turns out to be wrong.
Are intersex conditions harmful?
In general, intersex conditions do not cause the person to feel sickness or pain. However, some intersex conditions are associated with serious health issues, which need to be treated medically. However, surgically "correcting" the appearance of intersex genitals will not change these underlying medical needs.
There are very few instances when a child's intersex variation poses health risks that require immediate medical attention. Intersex people, like all people, sometimes have health issues. For example, being a female is not in and of itself a health problem, but there are health problems specific to being 'female', such as ovarian cancer.
Why are Intersex individuals subjected to medical treatment?
Since Intersex bodies cannot be easily categorised into one sex or another, the assumptions about how they'll identify, express themselves, and who they'll be attracted to cannot be easily made, and the discomfort this gives some people drives recommendations for medically unnecessary treatment.
However, on February 1st 2013, the United Nations condemned these practices because evidence has shown that medically unnecessary "normalising" procedures, such as irreversible genital surgeries, may be physically and psychologically harmful, and infants and young individuals cannot consent to them. Even adolescents have reported feeling pressured, as late as high school, by their parent's and/or doctors' recommendations, and often regret having succumbed to them.
Why is Language Important?
Language is important because it very much defines how one conceptualises or understands Intersex. To give an example, in 2006 the medical community replaced the term intersex with "disorders of sexual development" (DSD). DSD is problematic because it reinforces the idea that Intersex is a medical condition in need of correction. Using DSD, individuals that identify as Intersex have not choice but to identify as "disordered", even though our natural bodies are most often healthy.
Today, some Intersex people, especially those taught DSD by their parents and/or doctors since the term's inception, use the label. One respects the individuals' choice to do so. However, using stigmatising labels does not help attain civil rights and protections against discrimination. Thus, the term "intersex" is recommended for promoting equality for those born with 'atypical' sex characteristics.
What are the correct pronouns for intersex people?
Pronouns should not be based on the shape of one's genitalia, but on what the person prefers to be called. For children too young to communicate what their preferences are, go with the gender assignment parents and doctor agreed on based on their best prediction. Do not call intersex children "it:" this is dehumanizing.
How can I be an ally?
You can help by talking to your friends and family members about what intersex really is. The more people are aware about intersex issues, the less likely they will accept surgery and silence as the only option when they or someone they know have an intersex baby. If someone tells you about their intersex status, make sure to respect their name and gender identity as well as their privacy. Ask what they need from you and learn more about intersex issues so you can be as supportive as possible.
- Be Intersex inclusive
- E.g. Use the LGBTI or LGBTIA acronyms whenever possible
- Make Intersex more visible
- Like and follow Intersex organisations, activists, educators and people
- Share articles, blogs, videos about Intersex to educate and inspire
- Learn about Intersex by talking to Intersex people
- If you can't meet an Intersex person than look at the variety of videos and documentaries online (my favourite is Eden Atwood on 'Interthoughts')
- Do not make the assumption that Intersex is a medical condition
- Some Intersex individuals don't use the words "condition," "syndrome," etc. when discussing their form of Intersex.
- Many Intersex individuals use the term "intersex variations," which doesn't inherently medicalise Intersex bodies.
- When speaking with Intersex individuals
- Intersex may or may not be part of a person's identity
- Ensure that your questions do not stigmatize or fetishize Intersex individuals
- Phrase questions to understand Intersex broadly, not in ways that are too personal or invasive
- If Intersex individuals are not comfortable discussing certain topics:
- They may wish to have the conversation another time
- They may wish to have this conversation, but not publicly
- They may wish to have a conversation about Intersex broadly, but not personally
- They may wish to have this conversation but aren't knowledgeable about all Intersex issues and might point you towards good resources
- They may not wish to have this conversations, it may be too personal or too triggering
Are intersex people a "third gender"?
Many people with intersex conditions identify solidly as a man or as a woman, like many non-intersex people. There are some who identify as an alternative gender, like some non-intersex people do. While we support everyone's right to define their own identities, we do not believe that people with intersex conditions should be expected to be gender-transgressive just because of their physical condition.
While some Intersex individuals agree that sex and gender are not binary concepts, the goals of intersex activists are to raise awareness and to gain the right to consent to what is and is not done to our bodies. Intersex activists and people are not explicitly trying to bring down the binary.
Is intersex part of the transgendercommunity?
While some people with intersex conditions also identify as transgender, intersex people as a group have a unique set of needs and priorities beyond those shared with trans people. Too often, these unique needs are made invisible or secondary when "intersex" becomes a subcategory of "transgender." For example, people who talk about intersex in the context of transgender often stress the risk of assigning a "wrong" gender as an argument against intersex genital surgeries. While this is a valid concern, it overlooks the fact that intersex medical treatment is painful and traumatic whether or not one's gender identity happens to match their assigned gender. It is for this reason that we prefer to have "intersex" spelled out explicitly rather than have it "included" under the trans umbrella.
What is the difference between "hermaphrodite" and "intersex"?
In biology, "hermaphrodite" means an organism that has both "male" and "female" sets of reproductive organs (like snails and earthworms). In humans, there are no actual "hermaphrodites" in this sense, although doctors have called people with intersex conditions hermaphrodites" because intersex bodies do not neatly conform to what doctors define as typical male or female bodies. The word "hermaphrodite" is misleading, mythologizing, and stigmatising. Although some intersex activists do reclaim and use this term to describe themselves, it is not an appropriate term to refer to intersex people in general and is very much a personal preference. In short, snails are hermaphrodites; humans are not. 'Hermaphrodite' should only be used by Intersex people themselves. Also, please avoid using the word "intersexual" as a noun; more prefer "intersex people" or "people with intersex conditions/experiences."
Inter/Act Youth - http://interactyouth.org/post/98236692870/more-intersex-faqs
OII-USA - http://oii-usa.org/1000/information-intersex-allies/