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Intersex: Myths and Realities

Intersexuals are people born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of female or male.  Intersexuals make up an often invisible and/or misunderstood aspect of gender variance.

  • Intersex is not a single condition.  As many as 50 different medical conditions are included under the "intersex" umbrella.  The only consistent similarity among this broad set of conditions is the way in which they are considered "abnormal" by society.
  • Not all intersex people have ambiguous genitalia. Many people with intersex conditions have typical genital development. However, other unexpected symptoms may develop (especially at puberty).
  • Most of the difficulty experienced by intersex persons is brought upon them by external stigma (medical and social), not internal conflicts. A significant minority of people with intersex conditions wrestle with issues of gender identity and/or "transition" from their assigned gender, but this experience is not a characteristic of intersex conditions in general.
  • Infant genital "normalization" surgeries are not the only problem with how intersex individuals are treated. Many intersex conditions are not even diagnosed until puberty or later.
  • While we often see figures of 1 in 2000 intersex births, this considers only infants with ambiguous genitalia in hospitals that track statistics on the gender assignment team.  Including all intersex conditions results in a ratio of more like 1.7% of all human beings having some sort of intersex condition.

Infant "Normalization" Surgeries

Unlike transsexuals who may choose to undergo sex reassignment surgery as a consenting adult, infants with intersex conditions are often subjected to numerous surgeries beginning shortly after birth and continuing into puberty.  While some of these surgeries may be necessary to sustain the physical health of the child, the medical establishment has also long advocated for cosmetic surgeries which carry great risks, including risks to genital sensation (which the child will need later for a healthy sex life), continence, fertility, and life.

For parents of children born with ambiguous genitalia...

How the Body Works: Sex Differentiation

Handbook for Parents (OII)

Handbook for Parents (Accord Alliance)

More than just infant surgeries

There are many different kinds of intersex conditions. Most of them do not involve ambiguous genitals. Many people with intersex conditions do not learn of their medical condition until at least puberty. In such cases, the man or woman may suddenly experience the stigma of having doctors treating them as medical curiosity and questioning the authenticity of their gender.  Such diagnoses are too often surrounded by secrecy and shame. 

Terminology is currently changing and "intersex conditions" are now increasingly being referred to in the medical community as "Disorders of Sex Development" or DSDs. However, many intersex persons find such language to be stigmatizing.  So "intersex" continues to be the preferred term used in most contexts.

LGBTI? Intersex and Transgender

There are commonalities between transgender and intersex experienceHowever, most people with intersex conditions do not identify as transgender--or even as intersexual. 

Generally speaking, intersex is not an identity category. While some intersex people do reclaim "intersex" as part of their identity, most regard it as a medical condition, or just a unique physical state. Most intersex people identify and live as ordinary men and women... (Intersex Initiative)


Intersex: Be Aware

There are several opportunities that you may want to observe in raising awareness about intersex people and their struggles.

  • October 26 - Intersex Awareness Day
  • November 8 - Intersex Solidarity Day
  • March 15-21, 2009 - Klinefelters Syndrome Awareness Week
  • June 21 - Turner Syndome Awareness Day

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Trans Basics
Gender vs. Sexuality
Beyond the Binary
Myths and Realities
Types of Intersex
Intersex and Trans
Intersex Voices
Labels and Vocabulary
Myths and Sterotypes
Children and Youth
Is it an Illness?