Style guide: on intersex and terminology

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.

Intersex is a form of biological diversity

Intersex people are born with physical sex characteristics that don’t fit medical norms for female or male bodies. These include a diverse range of genetic, chromosomal, anatomic and hormonal variations.

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

Describing intersex

We favour the terms intersex, intersex people, intersex variation, intersex trait. These recognise intersex as a naturally occurring biological phenomenon.

The phrase “people born with intersex variations” is useful as it recognises the diversity of intersex people. At least 40 different variations, with different characteristics, are so far known to science.

We don’t favour the terms intersex condition or hermaphrodite, but we recognise that some intersex people reclaim or use these terms to describe themselves. “Condition” is considered medicalised by many intersex people. “Hermaphrodite” is used in science to describe animals that have a functioning set of both male and female organs so that they may reproduce with or without a mate. No mammals are properly hermaphrodites but some intersex people reclaim an association with older poetic symbolism that other intersex people find contentious.

We don’t favour the terms “intersexual” or “intersexuality”. They most commonly arise in materials translated into English, and some people confuse them with a sexual orientation. We don’t favour “intersexed”, intersex as a verb, as intersex is something we are rather than an action, as if something done to us (or taken away from us).

We never use language like “inter-sex” and we never abbreviate to “IS”.

Many people use diagnostic or chromosomal labels for their variations, sometimes together with a gender label, such as XXY; KS Man; XXY Woman; Complete Androgen Insensitivity; XY Woman; Swyer Syndrome; or Turner Syndrome, and this is completely ok. These labels also describe elements of our life experiences.

We reject “disorder”, “DSD”, or “Disorders of Sex Development”, as pathologizing and stigmatising language that harms intersex people. We also reject “Differences of Sex Development” and similar terms because they will be interpreted as indistinguishable from DSD.

Medical interventions

We typically describe forced, involuntary, unnecessary and non-consensual gonadal and cosmetic genital surgeries on infants, children and adolescents as just that. We occasionally also use the term “Genital Mutilation”, as it corresponds to the widely used term “Female Genital Mutilation”, but we generally try to refrain from the use of triggering language.

We regard all such interventions without personal and fully informed, prior consent as reprehensible; we campaign to end them.

An overemphasis on infant surgeries as the intersex issue infantilises intersex people. For example, diagnosis and medical interventions are also common during puberty and adolescence. We also seek to create an awareness of involuntary and coerced hormonal treatment. It is important to recognise lifelong impact from coerced or involuntary treatment.

Adults with intersex variations are also subject to coercive treatment, with a particular concern for women in sport who have been assigned female at birth and have a lifelong identification as women.

Forced medical interventions are not simply condemned by intersex human rights organisations; objections are not simply our opinion. Forced medical interventions have been condemned by numerous human rights and other institutions, including United Nations agencies and treaty bodies, the Council of Europe, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and representatives of African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Locally, they have been the subject of a cross-party Australian Senate Committee inquiry that recommended major changes to current clinical practices.

Intersex, identity, sex and gender

Intersex is a political identity for many people, associated with an embodiment, in just the same way that being a woman, disabled or Aboriginal are identities. These identities are intersectional. It is possible, for example, to be an intersex woman with a disability. But please remember that very many intersex people have an intersex trait or variation, or use medicalised language. Intersex is better framed as embodiment not identity.

Please do not frame intersex as a form of gender diversity. Like everyone else, intersex people have a diverse range of gender identities, but this is not what defines us as a population. Intersex is better described as a form of bodily diversity.

There are intersex men, intersex women, gender non-conforming intersex people, intersex people with non-binary gender identities, intersex people who are both male and female, and other gender identities. Relatedly, intersex people possess many different legal sex assignments.

In many cases, the gender identities of intersex people match our birth sex assignments; most people born with intersex variations are not transgender or gender diverse. This also means that the word “cisgender” does not mean “non-intersex”. If you want a word for non-intersex then the word is “endosex” – “endo” for “within” sex characteristics norms.

Some of us have do have gender identities that differ from our birth sex assignment. In these cases the original assignment was incorrect. A particular difficulty faced by many intersex people in this situation is that we may have had involuntary and irreversible medical treatment to make our bodies appear more like our incorrect assigned sex.

Morgan Carpenter says in an article published by SBS:

One of our key human rights issues is not really the existence of binary genders, but what is done medically to make us conform to those norms.

We seek autonomy to make choices and decisions about our bodies and identities ourselves.

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

Relationship diversity

Many intersex people are in apparently standard heterosexual relationships, as well as some who are in “LGB” (lesbian, gay or bisexual) relationships, some are in no relationship and some are in queer relationships or ones that do not fit any current codification.

Intersex and alliances

LGBT is sometimes referred to as the “sexuality and gender diverse” community. This was OK until intersex people started speaking up, with our diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and our diverse sex characteristics. Language has begun to shift towards adopting “LGBTI”, and this often encompasses different, additional, populations. With at least three different kinds of intersecting issues within “LGBTI” – bodies, genders and sexualities – we favour deliberateness in language, to help ensure human rights and good health outcomes for all LGBTI populations.

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

Intersex in anti-discrimination law

In Australia, “intersex status” is an attribute in anti-discrimination law, but the Darlington Statement calls for protection on grounds of “sex characteristics”. In Malta, an attribute called “sex characteristics” protects people with intersex variations from discrimination and non-consensual medical interventions, and this approach is recommended by the Council of Europe. The Organisation of American States talks about “body diversity” when talking about protecting people with intersex variations.

In talking about inclusive legal terminology, the language is evolving. Internationally, “SOGIESC” is becoming common: “sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, and sex characteristics”.

Third International Intersex Forum, 2013

Participants at the Third International Intersex Forum, Malta, 2013.


We recommend avoiding new terms like “Sex and Gender Diverse” or “Trans Intersex and Gender Diverse”. They are anonymising, homogenising abstractions. Most people and many laws and languages don’t distinguish between sex and gender or understand the terms in the way they are intended. They also tend to promote trans and identity narratives at the expense of intersex and embodiment narratives. Indeed, the word ‘sex’ itself can be misunderstood or thought of as meaning legal sex classifications, rather than sex characteristics. Precision about the meaning or intention of the word sex is helpful: we recommend framing intersex as variations of sex characteristics, in line with widely accepted UN definitions.

Novel and abstract terms can prevent people from understanding their rights – including access to anti-discrimination protection through the attribute of “intersex status”. They can also demonstrate a lack of cultural competency. We recommend keeping to terminology used by the intersex movement itself.


The intersex flag, with an unbroken purple circle on a field of yellow, has been widely adopted internationally. It avoids simplistic associations with gendered pink and blue but is grounded in meaning.

The orchid is also commonly used as a symbol of intersex used, for example, in the title of the Australian movie Orchids My Intersex Adventure.

We recommend avoiding symbols relating to toilets or identities.

More information