Richard Goldschmidt, in proposing the term intersex, noted the limitations of previous terminology and the significance of his different approach to the subject.
Goldschmidt proposed that better terminology was needed when intersex was viewed from the then new perspective of “cytology, genetics, teratology, physiology, serology, endocrinology, etc.” He also invited endocrinologists to view sex differentiation with an “open mind and without prejudice.”
Prior to this paper intersex was largely in the domain of medical experts that specialized in thinking problems such as psychiatrists and psychologists. Few other fields of medicine were involved.
Intersex in humans was at that time largely limited to external appearance save for those who were discovered to be ‘internal hermaphrodites’ when autopsies were conducted. The standard test for the living was a ‘hands-on’ affair where some kind of medical ‘expert’ would view and touch the offending organs and make a pronouncement of male or female. That pronouncement was entirely dependent on the size of the ‘protrusions’ felt.
Goldschmidt observes that “we often take the fact of the existence of two sexes for granted” and then notes that “the causes of normal distribution of the sexes is difficult to ascertain.”
Goldschmidt clearly understood the difference between hermaphrodite and intersex. On page 446 of his paper he dismisses reported cases of “hermaphroditism” and “pseudo-hermaphroditism” as being “probably cases of hormonal intersex.”
Over 100 years ago science was aware that sex exists on a gradation or continuum. Goldschmidt was aware that old terms often proposed without the benefit of science were inaccurate and were not reflected in scientific discoveries of the time.
Hermaphrodite and allied terms arose from Greek and Roman mythology and were adopted by the priests, alchemists and soothsayers seeking an explanation for what was otherwise inexplicable to them. Some intersex people reclaim this term, although it remains contentious.
In the years since, intersex variations have been conflated with homosexuality, transgender identities and more. The last forty years have seen huge changes in the way these non-standard sexualities and gender identities have fared, yet intersex remains the only one treated as a curable disorder with clearly identifiable biological causes.
Today, in an attempt to remove from medicine any terms redolent of sexuality and myth, intersex has come to be viewed as a “disorder of sex development” or DSD and OII Australia firmly rejects these as pathologising and stigmatising.
We are intersex.
Citation: Goldschmidt, R. (1917). “Intersexuality and the endocrine aspect of sex”. Endrocrinology 1: 433-456