Intersex for allies

Who are intersex people?

Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that do not fit medical norms for female or male bodies. Intersex traits are natural manifestations of human bodily diversity.

There are many different intersex traits. Not all intersex traits are visible in infancy. Intersex variations might become apparent prenatally, at birth, at puberty, or in adulthood. They may become apparent when trying to conceive.

Darlington retreat

Members of Australian and Aotearoa/NZ intersex organisations, and independent advocates, in Darlington, Sydney, in March 2017. Read our joint Darlington Statement. Photo courtesy of Phoebe Hart.

How common are intersex people?

A low-range statistic is around 1 in 2,000 people (.05% of births) but a more likely figure may be closer to 1.7%.

Read demographic data from a 2015 Australian study of 272 people born with atypical sex characteristics.
Read more about the number of intersex people.

Are intersex and hermaphrodite the same?

Biologically, no. Hermaphrodites (such as snails) possess fully functioning sets of both “male” and “female” sex organs. This is impossible in mammals.

Linguistically, the word originates in the Greek myth of Hermaphroditus who was both male and female, having elements of both sexes.

Some intersex diagnoses have been termed “pseudo-hermaphrodites” or “true-hermaphrodites”. While some intersex people use the term, others find it stigmatising due to that medical history. If in doubt, it is best only used by people with intersex variations.

What issues do intersex people face?

We can experience stigma, shame, discrimination, trauma and human rights violations due to our natural sex characteristics. Key issues include unwanted medical interventions and genetic de-selection on grounds that intersex traits are disorders, body shaming, and discrimination in access to healthcare, education, other services and in employment.

Bonnie Hart, Morgan Carpenter, a parent and a clinician talk with SBS.
Watch on SBS website; medical interventions still continue on health infants and children, read follow-up article at SBS

Do intersex people have health issues?

Intersex people, like all people, have health issues. In a few diagnoses, immediate medical attention is needed from birth; some health issues may be associated with specific intersex variations, but being intersex is not a health issue in and of itself. Natural intersex bodies are most often healthy.

Why are intersex people subjected to medical interventions?

Medical intervention attempts to make the bodies of people with intersex variations conform to male or female norms. Current medical protocols are based on the ideas that infant genital surgery and other interventions will “minimise family concern and distress” and “mitigate the risks of stigmatisation and gender-identity confusion”.

Such surgical interventions intrinsically focus on appearance, and not sensation or sexual function. They are also problematic as children cannot give informed consent and parents may be unaware of the full, lifelong implications. Adolescents, and even adults, have also reported pressure by doctors or families to conform to societal norms. The UN and many other human rights institutions now recognise these as harmful practices.

Very many intersex people suffer the physical and emotional effects from such interventions, and related shame and secrecy. Some doctors still believe that disclosure of a person’s intersex status would be too alarming.

At a fundamental level, homophobia, stigma and ancient superstitions underpin contemporary mistreatment of people with intersex variations.


Audio: Shon Klose speaks about medical intervention in an interview with ABC Alice Springs
(2 parts, around 15 minutes in total).

What are DSDs?

In 2006, a group of doctors replaced the umbrella term intersex with “disorders of sex development” or DSDs. The new label reinforces the idea that intersex traits are disorders that need to be fixed.

There are some intersex people who use the term today, especially when accessing healthcare, or when first taught to use DSD by parents or doctors. People also use a range of specific diagnostic terms.

People with intersex variations are free to use any label, but the term intersex has become even more accepted and widespread today.

We believe that stigmatising language leads to poor mental health, marginalisation, and exclusion from human rights and social institutions. The term intersex promotes human rights for people born with variations of sex characteristics.

Tony Briffa writes on “Disorders of sex development”.

What gender identities do intersex people have?

Intersex describes lived experiences of the body and we have many different ways of understanding our bodies, our sexes and our genders. We have a broad range of gender identities, just like non-intersex people. The identities of people with intersex variations may sometimes not match our appearance. Having a non-binary gender identity does not automatically make someone intersex.

Intersex people have all sorts of identities: Inter/Act (US) talk with Buzzfeed.

Are intersex people transgender or gender diverse?

Some of us are, but many of us are not. The gender identities of intersex people frequently match our assignments at birth, and sometimes they may be freely chosen. Some people who have chosen their gender may identify as transgender or gender diverse.

Many intersex people have an experience of involuntary medical treatment to impose stereotypical sex characteristics, or are at risk of this. This can make descriptions of intersex people as “cis” or “cisgender” problematic.

Are intersex people gay or lesbian, or queer?

It depends on the individual, how they understand themselves, how they present, and who they form relationships with. Every intersex person is different. Some people with intersex variations are LGB, queer or asexual, and many are heterosexual.

We share some common goals with the LGBT movement as we all fall outside of expected sex and gender norms. Intersex is part of LGBTI because of a shared experience of stigma based on sex and gender norms, not because we share a sexual orientation, or gender identity issues.

Gina Wilson talks about discrimination and mental health, for beyondblue.

What do intersex activists seek?

We seek the rights to self-determination and bodily autonomy, the right to a life without stigma and discrimination, and the right to a life free from shame and secrecy.

Resources

Framework documents

Non-fiction

Fiction

Documentaries

Organisations

Being an ally to intersex people

  • Be clear in your language and frame of reference. Intersex status is distinct from sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Adopt the 2017 Darlington Statement by Australian and NZ intersex organisations and individuals.

Bodily autonomy and depathologisation

  • Many medical studies of people with intersex variations explicitly identify fears of stigma, gender identity issues and non-heterosexual behaviours as reasons for medical treatment.
  • Ally with our call to prohibit harmful practices on infants, children and adolescents with intersex variations.
  • Challenge body shaming and the elimination of intersex traits via IVF.
  • Support intersex inclusion in health and human rights initiatives.

Anti-discrimination

  • Intersex people face discrimination in healthcare, education, employment, and other services, often due to physical characteristics, developmental issues, or assumptions about our identities.
  • Include measures to combat stigma in healthcare, education, employment, diversity and inclusion, and anti-bullying policies.

Forms and surveys

  • Consider whether and where your organisation needs to collect data on sex, gender and title.
  • Recognise the heterogeneity of intersex people. Recognise that intersex and non-intersex people alike benefit from F, M, X and multiple options.
  • Find more information at ihra.org.au/forms/

Full participation

  • Put people with intersex variations and intersex-led organisations front and centre when talking about intersex.

Download

More information

Acknowledgements

This document has antecedents in Intervisibility by OII Europe; Brief Guidelines for Intersex Allies by Hida Viloria and Claudia Astorino of OII-USA; a 2008 FAQ by OII; and a 2003 FAQ and Introduction to Intersex Activism A Guide for Allies by the Portland Intersex Initiative.

Related resources

Identification documentsInformation for parents” introduces intersex for parents. Available to read online.

  • We hope that our page for parents will be helpful to you if you have a new baby or if you’re planning a pregnancy, or you’ve recently discovered that your child has an intersex trait, sometimes called a “DSD” or “disorder of sex development“.

Employers' guide to intersex inclusionEmployers’ guide to intersex inclusion developed in collaboration between OII Australia (now Intersex Human Rights Australia) and Pride in Diversity in 2014. Written by Morgan Carpenter and Dawn Hough, the guide is kindly sponsored by IBM. A world-first, the guide presents information about intersex for employers, including:

  • An introduction to intersex.
  • Intersex bodies, identities, and inclusive language.
  • Disclosure, medical issues in the workplace, and travel.
  • Protections related to “intersex status” in Commonwealth law.
  • Information for diversity and inclusion professionals.
  • Top 10 ways to be an intersex ally.
  • Information for parents of intersex children.
  • Additional information and a glossary of terms.

Making your service intersex friendlyMaking your service intersex-friendly” is a short guide to help services build intersex-inclusive practice. It helps organisations and businesses to better understand intersex, and respond to community needs. Businesses and institutions will find ways of making services inclusive and respectful, including in data collection. The following issues are addressed:

  • Who are intersex people, and what do intersex clients need?
  • Data collection on intersex, sexual orientation and gender.
  • An example intake form.
  • Anti-discrimination law.
  • Disclosure and speaking up.
  • Inclusive language.
  • Body diversity issues.
  • What health issues intersex people face.