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By Lisa Jacobs
What is intersex?
Various groups define intersex in different ways, but as a general definition, intersex people are born with external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, and/or endocrine systems that are different from most other people. Others restrict the definition only to include people with certain conditions, medically termed “disorders of sex development”, where chromosomal sex does not match phenotypic (visibly apparent) sex, or phenotypic sex cannot be determined. The term 'intersex' encompasses a wide variety of conditions and body types that do not have anything in common except that they are deemed “abnormal” by society. Most intersex people identify as men or women, just like everybody else, although some identify as a third or different sex, as intersex, or a combination thereof.
How common are intersex conditions?
What do intersex activists want?
One of the main concerns of intersex activists is to transition from concealment-based treatments of intersex infants to one that is patient-centered. Often, intersex children are subjected to medically unnecessary procedures and surgeries in order to make their genitals appear normal. The child is then often raised without any idea of their intersex condition. Some of these surgeries create children with genitals different than their eventual gender, prompting sexual reassignment surgery which could otherwise have been avoided. Many surgeries and procedures are also experienced as sexually and/or psychologically abusive by intersex children, especially those used for research purposes or requiring sexually invasive treatments. Intersex activists now advocate that only medically necessary treatments be performed on intersex children, and that support and education should prevail instead of shame and concealment.
Some other demands of intersex activists include:
- Not being fetishized or over sexualized
- To be treated as real, diverse people rather than convenient examples for sex and gender theorists
- Some wish to be allowed to legally identify as intersex instead of, or in addition to, male or female
- To end stigma against intersex persons
- Better education among medical professionals
- Appropriate and knowledgeable health care
- More psychological and social support for intersex children and their families
- To consider medical necessity and sexual function as important factors in intersex care, as opposed to 'normalcy'
Are intersex conditions harmful?
In general, intersex conditions do not cause the person to feel sick or in pain. However, some intersex conditions are associated with serious health issues, which need to be treated medically. Surgically “correcting” the appearance of intersex genitals will not change these underlying medical needs.
What's the difference between intersex and transgender?
Some intersex people however, do identify also as transgender, transsexual, or genderqueer, especially those whose gender was chosen for them at birth and their genitals made to match. They may, for instance, have been born intersex, assigned as female at birth, but experienced their gender as male and later transitioned to such.
Are intersex people queer?
How can I be an intersex ally?
- It is impossible to know the gender of an intersex newborn. (Many would say it's impossible to know for certain the gender of any newborn.) Usually children born with intersex conditions are given a “best guess” gender and are raised as such. Intersex activists advocate that if a child later presents as a different gender, they should be allowed to switch from their official designation. Others come to identify their gender as somewhere in-between, and many others stick with the gender assigned them at birth.
- “Disorders of sex development” is the new preferred term in the American medical community used to describe intersex conditions. Some intersex activists worked with American medical professionals in favor of this change, in order to differentiate intersex conditions from the intersex identity. Most activists, however, find the term degrading, saying that the word 'disorder' further stigmatizes people with intersex conditions. Others believe that their intersex condition is not a disorder, but a natural difference along the spectrum of sex. French activists in particular have also noted that the term “disorders of sex development” does not translate well into other languages, causing more, rather than less, confusion about intersex conditions.
- Scientifically speaking, a hermaphrodite is a plant or animal with reproductive organs of both sexes. While the term has previously been used to refer to intersex people, most intersex activists now find it derogatory and stigmatizing. 'Intersex' is now the preferred term. Some intersex people have 'reclaimed' the word 'hermaphrodite' or 'herm' and use it to describe themselves, but non-intersex people should not do so without permission.
- Intersex in the Age of Ethics - Alice Dreger, ed.
- Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex - Alice Dreger
- Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self - Sharon Preves
- Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality - Anne Fausto-Sterling
- Lessons from the Intersexed - Suzanne Kessler
- As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl (P.S.) - John Colapinto
- “First, Do No Harm: Total Patient Care”
- “Mani’s Story”
- “Redefining Sex”
- “Hermaphrodites Speak!”
- “Is it a Boy or a Girl?”
- Bodies Like Ours – http://www.bodieslikeours.org
- Genders in X (forums) – http://www.gendersinx.org
- Intersex Collective – http://www.intersexcollective.org
- Intersex Initiative — http://www.ipdx.org
- MRKH Organization – http://www.mrkh.org
- Organisation Intersex International – http://www.intersexualite.org
- OII USA – http://www.oiiusa.org
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