Who are intersex people?
Intersex people are born with physical sex characteristics that do not fit medical norms for female or male bodies. While always innate, these variations can be evident prenatally, at birth, at puberty, or they can become apparent later in life, such as when attempting to conceive.
Intersex workers are really diverse. Each variation is different, and each worker will have different experiences relating to their particular variation. Typical variations of sex characteristics include androgen insensitivity syndrome, 46,XX congenital adrenal hyperplasia, hypospadias, micropenis, Klinefelter syndrome, Mayer-Rokitansky, and Swyer syndrome.
Assumptions and disclosure
It is important not to make assumptions about the identity, sex assignment, sex characteristics, gender, or terminology preferred by intersex staff. Similar to other stigmatised populations, some intersex workers will have an identity that is informed by their body, physical characteristics or life experience, while others may not. Misconceptions and stigmatisation will inform an individual’s choice in both disclosure and terminology.
Some people with an intersex variation will openly disclose their intersex status, others will not. In designing workplace policies and in general practice, there should be no obligation on intersex workers to educate co-workers or managers about their status or rights. Information on an individual’s intersex status and any diagnostic details should be treated as sensitive information.
Bodily diversity is normal and natural. All sorts of people live happily with different kinds of bodies, and intersex people are just as capable of happly, fulfilling lives as anyone else.
In many cases, a staff member’s intersex variation may not be visible to colleagues. In other cases, visible characteristics related to sex norms may be apparent, such as height, body shape or other characteristics. Bodily characteristics may also be impossible to conceal. It is important to recognise that body shaming is unfortunately widespread. Staff members may fear discrimination or curiosity. Bullying and stigmatisation due to bodily variations should be explicitly addressed in workplace bullying and harassment policies.
The impact of medicalisation
Many intersex workers will have histories of unwanted surgeries and hormone interventions with lifelong consequences, including medical and emotional consequences. A 2015 Australian study showed that people born with atypical sex characteristics are both less well educated than the general population, and better educated. Bullying, developmental delays and medical interventions during puberty can adversely impact school participation, but a high proportion of individuals succeed in higher education.
In some cases, an intersex diagnosis may have been withheld from a worker. An intersex variation may be visible to co-workers and not the individual with that variation. Alternatively, it may only become known during an individual’s working life, in which case it may have an impact on their work life, as well as their established identity and relationships. A 2015 Australian study showed that mental health is typically adversely affected in the years following diagnosis or disclosure of a diagnosis, but subsequently improves over time. A supportive, welcoming working environment is crucial. Intersex workers should be able to access personal leave if and when necessary.
In some cases, policies designed for workers with disabilities may be relevant to workers with intersex variations. These may include policies designed to support medical leave and workplace adjustments. It is important, both when staff are accessing workplace entitlements and in general practice, to respect the right of workers to confidentiality, including regarding their intersex status and any relevant diagnostic information.
Gendered facilities and uniforms
Changing and sanitation facilities may be uncomfortable spaces for some intersex workers, but access should be provided in line with sex or gender identity, as requested by the staff member. It is never acceptable to force a worker with an intersex variation to use separate facilities such as a unisex toilet.
Dress codes and professional standards should apply equally irrespective of sex or gender.
- If you work in healthcare, find out more about the way that intersex people are treated by medicine, and consider reading What do intersex people need from doctors?, an article in the December 2018 issue of the RANZCOG O&G Magazine by Morgan Carpenter
- If you work in education, consider reading The needs of students with intersex variations, a peer-reviewed journal article by Tiffany Jones.
Some policies designed for LGBT workers may apply to intersex workers, while others may not. Simply adding the letter “I” or the word intersex to an LGBT policy does not make any policy intersex inclusive.
Any workplace material on LGBTI workers needs to pay attention to the needs of intersex workers if it is to be inclusive and of relevance to intersex workers and, in doing so, not use language that adds to negative stereotypes, including assumptions about identities, and the use of medicalised language such as ‘disease’ or ‘disorder’.
For Intersex Awareness Day 2020, we announced collaborative new resources on raising the bar for allyship and inclusive practice:
- Raising the bar: How to be an intersex ally, respecting the diversity of the intersex population, doing your research, using appropriate language, acknowledging leadership and prioritising consent – download PDF version
- Inclusion guide to respecting people with intersex variations: Information about who are intersex people, helpful terminology, defining inclusion, measuring inclusion, intake forms and research, and a checklist on using appropriate terminology – download PDF version
What can IHRA offer?
We have developed content for and with other service providers, including co-authoring a book on intersex inclusion in the workplace in 2014 with Pride in Diversity. We can offer training packages designed for 30 minute, one hour, two hour and longer sessions on intersex and intersex issues in the workplace. All our training is delivered by people with lived experience and relevant expertise.
This is one of our series of briefing papers on discrimination, stigma and policy in specific settings:
Employers and union representatives should consult intersex-led organisations and additional resources on relevant workplace issues. We commend the following resources:
The Employers’ Guide to Intersex Inclusion
In 2014, we collaborated with Pride in Diversity to create a first Employers’ guide to intersex inclusion. Written by Morgan Carpenter and Dawn Hough, the guide is kindly sponsored by IBM.
UNISON working for intersex equality
In 2016, the UK union UNISON published a guide to workplace issues for people born with intersex variations.
VGLRL Guide for union and employer representatives on LGBTI issues
In 2017, we helped the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby develop material for their Guide for union and employer representatives on LGBTI issues. At the present time, this does not appear to be available on their website. Please contact VGLRL for details.
This material was first written by Morgan Carpenter for the VGLRL guide.
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