Before we get started, I feel the need to point out a few disclaimers for you, dear reader: (1) Before this assignment, I know next to nothing about intersex, and (2) I did try, but I still fail to understand the exact biological types that were present in intersex condition. I know that there existed many different kind of intersex variations, each different from the next and possessing their own fancy terms, but to describe them all in their glorious detail is a task that still eludes my theses ridden brain. There is a legitimate reason on why I choose to major in social science, sorry.
So if you are fine with that, let’s move on, Q&A style!
What is intersex?
No doubt the holy basic of the basics. Intersex is an umbrella term that is used to refer to people who was born with variations of internal and/or external sex anatomy, resulting in bodies that can’t be classified as the typical male or female – atypical sex characteristic.
We are usually taught that sex is merely black and white, either ‘male’ or ‘female,’ but that is simply not true!
Intersex people are born with reproductive organs and genitals that are less clearly identifiable, according to society’s general rules about what one’s physical characteristics and chromosomal makeup are supposed to signify. They may have varying degrees or levels of development, thus the variations.
Fetal development is a complicated process involving chromosomes, genes, gonads (ovaries and testes), hormones, and hormone receptors. Variations in all of these elements can occur, causing a child to be born with variations in their genitals or in their internal reproductive organs.
Sometimes it is clear in the delivery room, but sometimes intersex people don’t become aware of their status until they are teenagers and puberty doesn’t happen as expected. It isn’t always obvious.
Intersex as in the ‘I’ in ‘LGBTI’?
Yes, LGBTIA+ activism has fought for the rights of the people who fall outside of the expected binary of sex and gender norms. Intersex is a part of the LGBTIA+ because of their intersex status, and a shared experience of stigma – making the intersection between body, sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. Or in another words, SOGIEB.
How common is the intersex condition?
Some says that there is roughly 1 in every 2,000 people.
Some other says that the probability is about 1.7%.
Or maybe 4%.
Because of the many variations present, and not to mention the shame and secrecy that often shrouded the reality of the intersex condition, precious little data can be found. And even when such data exists, at most, it is only but some rough estimation.
The intersex symbols!
The color yellow has long been regarded as the hermaphrodite color, being neither blue nor pink. While purple, too, has been used for the same purpose.
The circle is unbroken and unornamented, symbolizing wholeness/ completeness, and the potentialities of the human life.
The orchid is a common symbol of intersex, as used in the film Orchids, My Intersex Adventure and Intersex Awareness Day.
How does intersex and trans differ?
Intersex is often confused with transgender, but they are actually two very different things. Intersex is when your biological sex doesn’t fit neatly into the male/female binary, but transgender is when you feel as if your assigned sex doesn’t match your gender identity. Basically, it is about sex characteristic/body diversity and gender identity.
But of course, someone can be both intersex and transgender. Especially if said person has experienced surgeries and later feels like their assigned sex doesn’t match their gender identity. It also goes without saying that an intersex person can also identify as a queer, or experience same-sex attraction.
Any special terminologies?
Intersex are the current term that most people use.
The phrase ‘people born with intersex variations’ is useful as it recognizes the diversity of intersex people, with at least 40 different variations, along with different characteristics, known so far to science.
Many people also use diagnostic or chromosomal labels for their variations, such as XXY, Complete Androgen Insensitivity, XY Woman, Swyer Syndrome, or Turner Syndrome, and this is completely OK. These labels describe elements of intersex life experiences.
How about hermaphrodite?
Such term is widely considered as a slur, so please don’t use it. It is a word that people associate with having both sets of working genitalia, which is rarely possible in humans, if at all. Because really, humans are different from snails, aren’t we?
How about DSD (Disorders of Sex Development)?
Not recommended. Some circle believes that DSD reinforces the idea that intersex traits are individual medical conditions/disorders that need to be fixed.
Yes, the ‘disorder’ part.
Stigmatizing language is bad.
Some also shunned the term because of what they fear as the gateway for the medicalization of the intersex condition.
How about DSD (Different/Diverse Sex Development)?
They are hard to distinguish from DSD.
The ‘Disorders of Sex Development’ one.
How about the third gender category? The ‘X’ thing?
Historically, ‘X’ as a sex signifier has been available since 1945 when the UN vested control of passports in the ICAO (International Civil and Aviation Organization). It arose out of the huge refugee migration trend following the World War II, and was made an allowable designator in view of the difficulties the resettlement aid workers had with unfamiliar names and the sex usually associated with them, thus the ‘X’ mark.
While the third gender is a blank sex designation on birth certificates aimed for intersex and other non-conforming people. As with the recent federal Australian identity guidelines, the German proposal has generated an enormous interest worldwide.
How does this intersex thing affect people?
For starters, there are shame and secrecy, for so many reasons.
Many doctors have told patients that they’ll never meet anyone like themselves. Sometimes they’ll even tell them not to talk about their conditions to anyone else, ever!
On top of that, doctors and parents often try to ‘fix’ intersex kids’ bodies with unnecessary surgeries, trying to make them fit into their idea of ‘normalcy.’ Such things are often called ‘genital normalizing surgery,’ plain ‘cosmetic surgery,’ or even ‘genital mutilation.’
In our society (and perhaps most), one’s sex often affects how a person speaks, acts, and is treated. In an attempt to neatly fit intersex individuals into one of these two categories, it is not uncommon for surgery (or hormonal treatment) to be performed at birth, or at a young age to alter the genitals to make them look ‘normal.’ Often, these surgeries are done for cosmetic reasons.
There are also the problems of:
- (Lack of) informed consent
- Violations of medical ethics/human rights concerns
- Violations of bodily autonomy/bodily integrity
- Genital mutilation/permanent nature of the surgery
- Physical effects (physical appearance, scarring, pain, and diminished/absent sexual function)
- Psychological effects (depression, poor body image, dissociation, sexual dysfunction, social anxiety, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, shame, self-loathing, difficulty with trust and intimacy, and PTSD)
More often than not, such surgeries are done by the reasoning of ‘minimizing family concern and distress’ and ‘mitigating the risks of stigmatization and gender-identity confusion.’ Rather than medical reasons, it was based more on social constructs, especially the ones surrounding gender and biology. Furthermore, what is defined as successful outcomes, are often just the patients’ acceptance of their new sex/gender assignment and heterosexual behavior, rather than their quality of life – which arguably more important.
At a fundamental level, homophobia, intolerance, and the stigmatization of difference underpin the contemporary mistreatment of intersex people.
Then, when do intersex people decide to identify (as one gender or the other)?
ISNA (Intersex Society of North America) recommends a patient-centered approach that involves assigning a certain gender at birth, and allowing the child to develop physically and emotionally before deciding whether to undergo surgery to make their genitalia appear distinctly male or female. But more often than not, many intersex individuals choose not to have surgery, for various reasons.
Any other issues?
There are several, such as athlete scandals, marriage, identification documents, genetic selection, and sterilization – all basically boils down to society’s condemnation of (bodily) difference. Life is more complete with variations, right? It is unfortunate that not many people share such sentiments.