1. People & Relationships
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

What is Intersex?


Question: What is Intersex?
Answer: Intersex is a word that describes people who doctors can't neatly classify as male or female. This includes people who have chromosomal anomalies or primary or secondary sex characteristics that defy the medical definitions of male and female.

Oftentimes when a baby is born intersex, they perform surgery or other medical interventions to make them appear to be more "male" or "female." They do this even though the conditions do not threaten the health of the infant.

Intersexism and Medical Treatment

The Intersex Society of North America has been advocating since 1993 to try and stop the medical profession from interfering with the health of intersex infants and children. Without the research to back it up, doctors have assumed that if they surgically create "normal" genitalia in intersex children, that things would be fine and the children would be well-adjusted.

Intersex people contend that their bodies are not "abnormal," rather they are a variation from the standard male and female. Just as skin and hair color varies along a wide spectrum, so does sexual anatomy.

What Gender Are You?

It used to be that doctors would decide what gender to assign an intersex child. They would do genetic testing and based on the results and what the genitalia looked like, would decide what surgical course to take. If the child had a Y chromosome and what doctors considered to be an "adequate" penis, the child would be assigned "male" gender. If the penis was considered "inadequate" the doctors would assign the child a female gender and surgically reconstruct the genitalia to look female. If there was no Y chromosome, the child would be assigned female gender and surgery would be done to construct what doctors think female genitalia look like. As projects like The Great Wall of Vagina prove, there are many variations of female (and male) genitalia.

People who have experienced such surgeries and genital mutilation have spoken out against such practices. They speak of both the physical and emotional pain of having their bodies violated and the shame of feeling that something was wrong with them or that they had a secret they needed to hide. The theory used to be that intersex children should have surgery as soon as possible to prevent some kind of gender confusion or trauma. The belief now is that it is better wait and let the intersex person decide for themself if they want any kind of surgery or medical intervention.

Intersexuality and Transsexuality

Intersexuality is different than transsexuality. Unlike transsexuals who often choose surgery or medical intervention to make their bodies align with the sex they identify with, intersex people have often been "assigned" a gender by the medical profession and it's not necessarily one they identify with.

Words to Avoid When Speaking of Intersexuality

"Hermaphrodite" is an old medical term used to describe intersex people. It's a word that has a lot of negative stigmatization associated with it and intersex people prefer the term "intersex."

Another term to avoid is "ambiguous genitalia." Many intersex people dislike this term because it connotes that their genitalia are not normal. They feel fine with the bodies they were born with and do not feel the need to fit into society's definition of male and female.

Are Intersex People Queer?

While many intersex people identify as queer or part of the LGBTI spectrum, many do not feel included or represented in the queer or trans community or queer rights movement.

For Parents of Intersex Children

Before letting a medical professional talk you into unnecessary and possibly damaging treatment, seek out the advice of a trained psychologist and read up on Frequently Asked Questions at the Intersex Society of North America website.

Information provided by Portland Intersex Visibility & Awareness Campaign

  1. About.com
  2. People & Relationships
  3. Lesbian Life
  4. Diversity
  5. Trans
  6. What is Intersex

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.