Being an intersex individual means that one’s outer genitalia and inner genitalia do not match. The Intersex Society of North America defines it as:
“Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY” (ISNA).
The experts at InteractAdvocates.org add, “What does this mean? Intersex is a socially constructed category that reflects real biological variation. To better explain this, we can liken the sex spectrum to the color spectrum. There is no question that in nature there are different wavelengths that translate into colors most of us see as red, blue, orange, yellow. But the decision to distinguish, say, between orange and red orange is made only when we need it—like when we’re asking for a particular paint color. Sometimes social necessity leads us to make color distinctions that otherwise would seem incorrect or irrational, as, for instance, when we call certain people “black” or “white” when they’re not especially black or white as we would otherwise use the terms.
In the same way, nature presents us with sex anatomy spectrums. Breasts, penises, clitorises, scrotums, labia, gonads—all of these vary in size and shape and morphology. So-called “sex” chromosomes can vary quite a bit, too. But in human cultures, sex categories get simplified into male, female, and sometimes intersex, in order to simplify social interactions, express what we know and feel, and maintain order.
So, nature doesn’t decide where the category of “male” ends and the category of “intersex” begins, or where the category of “intersex” ends, and the category of “female” begins. Humans decide. Humans (today, typically doctors) decide how small a penis has to be, or how unusual a combination of parts has to be, before it counts as intersex. Humans decide whether a person with XXY chromosomes or XY chromosomes and androgen insensitivity will count as intersex” (interactadvocates.org).
Common Questions about Intersex Individuals
Q- “What is the difference between transgender and intersex?”
- From InteractAdvocates.org, “A transgender person has a gender that is different than what adults assumed by looking at their body when they were born. For example, a person born with a vulva and vagina may grow up to realize they are not a woman. They could grow up as a transgender man, non-binary person, or someone with another gender. People realize they are transgender at many different ages. Some may later affirm their gender through physical and/or medical changes. Most transgender people are not born with differences in the development of their genitals or reproductive anatomy.
Intersex people are born with differences in their chromosomes, genitals, or reproductive anatomy, compared to the usual two ways that bodies develop. Most children with intersex anatomy, regardless of how their bodies look, are raised in either male or female gender roles. And many intersex people do grow up with a gender identity that aligns with how they were raised: male or female. This means that intersex people can be cisgender. (“Cisgender” means someone is the gender that was assumed for them at birth.)
Intersex people may also grow up to realize that the gender they were raised as was wrong for them. In this way, a person can be both intersex and transgender.
Intersex and transgender people both challenge the common myth that gender is dependent on body parts. The two communities face many overlapping issues. Often, transgender people have to fight to access surgeries that they do want, while intersex people have to fight against surgeries that they don’t want—or already received as young children without their consent.
Q- “Is intersex the same thing as non-binary?”
- Intersex is a word that describes a spectrum of physical traits—different ways that bodies can develop. Non-binary usually describes a person’s experience with gender.
Gender is social, cultural, and personal. It affects how people dress, behave, and want others in the world to see them. Many people, including most intersex people, describe their gender using the words “male” or “female.” interACT generally avoids the words “male” and “female” when describing body parts, because not all people within a gender category will have the same body parts. Gender is not dependent on body parts.
People with all kinds of bodies have all kinds of genders. Non-binary people might experience gender in a way that is not exactly male or female—maybe it’s neither, both, in between, and somewhere else completely. Non-binary often gets grouped under the transgender umbrella.
Some intersex people may describe themselves as having “non-binary bodies.” This refers to sex development being a spectrum, but it does not mean that all intersex people have non-binary genders. Intersex people can be non-binary, men, women, or might use other words to describe themselves. It is always best to ask individuals how they describe their body parts and gender identities.
Q- “Is intersex a gender?”
- From InteractAdvocates.org, “It is uncommon for the word to be used that way. Intersex is usually an adjective that describes a person’s body. Their gender is something else. For example, there are intersex men, intersex women, intersex non-binary people, and others. For many people, intersex traits strongly affect their relationship to their gender. Using intersex or intergender as a personal label, without having an intersex experience, may be considered inappropriate.”
An excellent resource guide from the National LGBT Cancer Network is linked below. This was a highly informative, educational guide- especially if you are just starting to learn about intersex individuals.
*All information within is not owned by Reclaiming Intimacy. RI is sharing the information to help educate & empower only.