People with innate variations of sex characteristics form a diverse population with many different kinds of bodies, sex characteristics, observed/assigned sex, genders, identities, life experiences, and terminology and word preferences. What we share in common is an experience of having innate sex characteristics (such as chromosomes, gonads, reproductive development or hormones) that differ from medical norms for female or male bodies. We risk and experience discrimination, stigmatisation and harmful practices because of the ways our bodies are seen as different.
People with innate variations of sex characteristics have health needs, just like all other people. Sometimes these are associated with our specific variations, but they can also be associated with the ways we have been treated by medicine and by society. Dominant ideological approaches treat people with intersex traits as disordered and in need of preemptive “fixing” in infancy or childhood, or elimination, and as an ‘other’ third category of sex, in need of recognition. Each approach is reflected in different data, including disease and procedure classifications, and sex/gender classifications. Neither approach respects the diversity of the population and its pluralism in personal values and preferences. Both frameworks contribute to widespread experiences of stigma and shame, including in social, educational, intimate, and clinical settings.
Intersex people, especially those of us who are diagnosed at birth, in infancy or during puberty, are often the subject of surgical or hormonal interventions to “fix” our sex characteristics and make our bodies appear more typically female or male. Interventions without personal, informed consent violate their rights. They are recognised as harmful practices by human rights institutions and public health institutions, and the subject of new legal reforms in the Australian Capital Territory.
Like all stigmatised populations, a range of different language is used to describe intersex traits, but many individuals with these traits lack access to words that can help them understand themselves. Contested umbrella terms include the clinical terms disorders or differences of sex development. Historically, the term hermaphrodite was used in law, before being repurposed by medicine and biology. We use the descriptive phrase “innate variations of sex characteristics” to promote clarity, avoid misconceptions, and align with new legal protections and statistical classifications.
Intersex Human Rights Australia
Intersex Human Rights Australia Ltd (formerly Organisation Intersex International Australia or OII Australia) is a national body by and for people with intersex variations. IHRA is here for all people with innate variations of sex characteristics and our families. We promote the health, human rights, self-determination and bodily autonomy of intersex people in Australia. Our goals are to help create a society where our bodies are not stigmatised, and where our rights as people are respected, protected and fulfilled. To do this, we build community, evidence, capacity, and education and information resources. We engage in advocacy and policy development work, and also provide psychosocial support via the InterLink project.
Cumulatively, we have many decades of experience in human rights advocacy, and peer and psychosocial support. We bring together qualifications and expertise in bioethics, psychology and allied health, law, medical anthropology and public administration. We have made significant contributions to health and human rights policy and practice in Australia and internationally:
- Legislative protections from harmful practices in medical settings, and investment in hospital psychosocial support, in the Australian Capital Territory (2023). IHRA advocates were commended for our “diligent, passionate and highly intellectual work” and Executive Director Morgan Carpenter was specifically commended for his “tireless work” by Andrew Barr, ACT Chief Minister.
- Morgan Carpenter, Tony Briffa and Bonnie Hart played a key role in an Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into the health and human rights of people born with variations of sex characteristics, reporting in 2021.
- We have contributed to improvements to research and data collection, including through the development and implementation of national statistical standards, in the 2020 Australian Bureau of Statistics standard on sex, gender, variations of sex characteristics and sexual orientation. Unlike previous standards, which failed to respect the observed/assigned sex of people with intersex variations, this new standard respects our population.
- Development of a national community consensus statement, the 2017 Darlington Statement, agreed by organisations and individuals involved in advocacy and peer support across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. This has been accompanied by work led by Bonnie Hart to design healthcare pathways consistent with the Statement.
- Inclusion of protections from discrimination on grounds of sex characteristics in jurisdictions across Australia. This has typically replaced language that predated intersex organising and that has not understood our population, such as protections of people with ‘indeterminate sex’ on grounds of gender identity.
- The introduction in 2017 by the National Health and Medical Research Council of a quality of life test, when IVF businesses consider genetic selection to eliminate embryos with “serious genetic conditions”. Some intersex variations are inappropriately described as serious genetic conditions, with evidence that family members of intersex people may be pressured to use IVF to avoid passing on relevant genes.
- In 2017, Morgan Carpenter, was a signatory and member of the drafting committee for the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10 on the application of international human rights law in relation to sex characteristics, gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation.
- Engagement with international institutions including the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organisation. Morgan Carpenter participated in the first UN expert meeting on ending human rights violations against intersex people. We engage in ongoing work to document human rights violations, contribute to human rights analysis on Australia and internationally, and reform medical protocols.
- Senate Committee recommendations for major changes to clinical and legal practice, with the development of national policy guidelines within in a human rights framework – see our article about the report Involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people in Australia (October 2013) and cross-party Senate speeches on the issue (March 2014).
- We engage in academic research and engage in debate with bioethicists and surgeons including in this highly commended event for University of Melbourne medical students in June 2020.
Intersex Human Rights Australia is a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. We are recognised by the Australian Taxation Office as a charitable Public Benevolent Institution. We are registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. Our staff are primarily funded through foreign philanthropic funding, with additional Australian resourcing associated with service delivery, such as the InterLink project.
- Contact us
- Find out about InterLink, our psychosocial support service, and join our friends and members support group on Facebook
- Find out about our training and education services, including fee-for-service talks, presentations, policy development and advice
- Donate to support our work
- Subscribe to our mailing list
- Find out about the governance of IHRA and our partnerships and affiliations
We acknowledge the traditional owners of country throughout Australia, their diversity, histories and knowledge and their continuing connections to land and community. We pay our respects to all Australian Indigenous peoples and their cultures, and to Elders of past, present and future generations.
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