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Intersex: Changing Terminology

Since there are numerous intersex conditions, understanding the physical factors involved in intersexuality will necessarily bring you into contact with a variety of medical terminology.  To explore such terminology futher, you are invited to learn more about specific intersex conditions.

While medical diagnoses are a distinctive part of defining intersex identity, persons with intersex conditions also grapple with the cultural connotations of gender in ways that deeply inform identity, self-understanding, and social interaction. The tensions between these different aspects of intersex experience are reflected in controversies relating to evolving terminology.

Understanding the different approaches to intersex terminology is important, not only for historical and political reasons, but because it provides a window into how different people approach intersex conditions.

Umbrella Terms

Medical terminology has evolved significantly in the late 20th century and early 21st century.  In various contexts, you may see these medical conditions referred to:

Hermaphrodite/Hermaphroditism - A historical, but out-dated term developed before chromosomal analysis and a full understanding of sex development had been developed in the medical community. The term "hermaphrodite" is derived from Hermaphroditus, a figure of ancient Greek myth, who possessed traits of both sexes. 

Hermaphroditism specifically referred to people with both kinds of sex organs (e.g. one ovary and one testical).  "True Hermaphroditism" referred to what we now call "ovo-testes" where both ovarian and testicular tissue is present. "Pseudo-Hermaphroditism" refered to ambiguous genitalia.

In recent decades, modern science has developed a dramatically more intricate understanding of human sex development. We now know that there are a variety of intersex conditions for which "hermaphrodite" is terribly misleading.

Use of terms such as hermaphrodite and hermaphroditism are now considered (1) problematic and even offensive to many intersexual people and (2) medically inaccurate and obsolete.

Hermaphrodite" has sometimes been reclaimed by intersex people in much the same way that derogatory terms like "queer" or "tranny" have been reclaimed.  However, such terminology is generally not appropriate for allies or non-intersex persons to apply.

Intersexual/Intersex conditions - This term displaced "hermaphroditism" as knowledge and understanding of sex development has increased. Intersex was and continues to be a widely accepted is an umbrella term referring to a range of medical conditions affecting the sexual and reproductive anatomy. 

However, intersex is not a medical diagnosis. In fact, the only reason that the wide range of intersex conditions are considered related is that all these conditions challenge the stereotypical narrative of sex development in some way.

"Intersexual" is in some ways parallel to terms like lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender insofar as it suggests a kind of identity politics that embraces the whole person and not just one part of their body.  Yet, people who have intersex conditions and identify as intersexuals are in the minority. Most identify as just men or just women.  So "intersexual" ends up being misleading insofar as it suggests that people with intersex conditions are in between the genders. 

Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) - This is new medical terminology (established 2006) for the variety of medical conditions impacting sexual and reproductive anatomy. The term is controversial for both process and substantive reasons.  

The term DSD was developed and adopted by the medical community with extremely limited input from the intersex community. Many intersex activists argue that calling these conditions "disorders" will further pathologize natural gender variance and increase the level of stigma associated with intersex experience.

On the other hand, DSD is likely to become an increasingly influential term in the medical community. Advocates for DSD argue that establishing clear terminology and guidelines for the medical community to deal with intersex conditions will ultimately improve patient care and demystify these conditions.

More Variations - In the aftermath of "Disorders of Sex Development," some more affirming options have arisen, including "Variations of Sex Development" and "Differences of Sex Development." While not in widespread use, these terms are being used by individuals in dialogue with the medical establishment who wish to avoid the frame of "disorder."

What term is "right"?

The reality seems to be that multiple terms will be used, with none being perfectly suitable. To deepen this observation, we offer three outside view points here:

Transfaith Policy

For the purposes of this website, we are acknowledging DSD as a medical term. However, we will use "intersex conditions" as our primary terminology for this topic, insofar as our goal is community education and awareness.  In particular, we recognize that individual people with intersex conditions self-identify in a variety of ways (e.g. men, women, intersex, and/or transgender) and want to honor that diversity in the way we talk about these issues. 

We also try to avoid using words like "disorder" and "defect," because we affirm that most intersex conditions are a welcome part of human diversity which ought to be celebrated.

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?