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.
Intersex people use many different words to describe our bodies and our characteristics. The words people use are sometimes chosen to avoid misconceptions and stigma. Other times people will lack affirmative words, or use medicalised terms in the absence of knowledge about alternatives.
All available information suggests that intersex people have diverse identities. Many intersex people are heterosexual, while many are not, and most intersex people identify with sex assigned at birth (sometimes termed cisgender). This discussion about identities can obscure a deeper issue: because intersex is about physical characteristics, it includes infants and children who do not have agency to express an identity. Care needs to be taken to acknowledge this when talking about intersex people.
We favour the terms intersex, intersex people, intersex variation, intersex trait. These recognise intersex variations as naturally occurring biological phenomena.
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 now 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 according to this definition. Western (and some other) legal systems have had standardised ways of treating intersex people using the language of the hermaphrodite, and the loss of memory of these older forms of understanding has consequences today, including in erroneous beliefs that intersex is a new phenomenon. 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”.
- Read Tony Briffa on “disorders of sex development”
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 pathologising 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.
- Read peer-reviewed analysis on intersex health and human rights issues by Morgan Carpenter
- Read What do intersex people need from doctors?, an article in the December 2018 issue of the RANZCOG O&G Magazine by Morgan Carpenter
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 an affirmative identity for many people, associated with an embodiment, in just the same way that being a woman, disabled, Indigenous or Aboriginal can be affirmative 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.
Do not frame intersex as a form of gender diversity. It is wrong to frame being intersex as being transgender. Like everyone else, intersex people have a diverse range of gender identities, but this is not what defines us as a population. Intersex is 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; this is often called “cisgender”. This means that most people born with intersex variations are not transgender or gender diverse. These also mean 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 people use the word “dyadic” with the same intent.
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. Some intersex people who do not identify with sex assigned at birth may understand themselves as transgender.
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.
A focus on our meaning for sex and gender categories often overshadows our own concerns and issues. These may include health concerns including, in some cases, around fertility or cognitive issues.
Many intersex people are in typical 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
- Morgan Carpenter on the Yogyakarta Principles and LGBTI: paywalled journal article free author manuscript
- Intersex intersectionalities with same sex attraction and LGBTI
- Basic differences between intersex and transgender
- Intersex and disability
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. Many intersex people grow up to be heterosexual and identify with sex assigned at birth, while others will grown up to be same sex attracted or gender diverse. All these identities need to be respected. It is inappropriate to frame intersex people as LGBT, or as necessarily queer or transgender. Remember that the intersex population includes individuals who do not have agency to express any identity. Different language, “LGBTI”, may be appropriate if intersex people are also included as a population.
With at least three different kinds of intersecting issues within “LGBTI” – bodies, genders and sexualities – we favour deliberateness and specificity in language, to help ensure human rights and good health outcomes for all LGBTI populations.
We have longstanding alliances and collaborations with other communities and populations also, notably the Australian disability movement.
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”.
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 has multiple different meanings. We recommend acknowledgement of sex as assigned at birth based on observed sex characteristics, and recognition of intersex as innate variations of sex characteristics, in line with widely accepted UN definitions.
Some organisations use terms like “sexual and gender minorities” for entirely valid reasons, including that LGBT terms do not include people with Indigenous identities in our region, and that “LGBT” and “LGBTI” prioritise the needs of gay men. However, the flaw in this thinking is that terminology is a solution to systemic issues of exclusion and power. These terms do not automatically include intersex people or our human rights concerns any more than any other terminology.
Novel and abstract terms can prevent people from understanding their rights – including access to anti-discrimination protection through the attributes of “intersex status” or “sex characteristics”. They can also demonstrate a lack of cultural competency.
We recommend avoiding neologisms like “intersexism”. The meaning of this word is unclear, and it appears to be mentioned only ever in relation to one event in the year: IDAHOBIT on 17 May. This is an indication that it serves a purpose unrelated to those of the intersex population. The term “endosexism” might be more appropriate – but it is most appropriate to instead identify and focus on explaining what it is that these terms are supposed to be a shorthand for.
Meaningful attention to the specific issues faced by intersex people has the potential can make any non-pathological terminology inclusive. To help promote good practice, we recommend specificity, and use of terminology employed 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.
- Intersex for allies – our introductory guide to intersex periodically updated)
- Read more on intersex intersectionalities with other populations (periodically updated).
- The Darlington Statement – an intersex community consensus statement in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.
- Guidelines for reporting on people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity by the Australian Press Council
- Intersex Media Guide by interACT (US)
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