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Everything To Know About being Intersex

Robyn Exton

Nov 10, 2021

Everything To Know About being Intersex

Intersex is a natural variation in human sex that doesn’t fit into the male/female sex binary. Many people don’t understand what that means or what the variations might look like, but it’s a perfectly normal part of human biology. Intersex people have faced – and continue to face – discrimination and judgment. Learning more about intersex people and the issues they face is the first step in increasing understanding and tackling that discrimination.

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What Does Intersex Mean?

Intersex is an umbrella term that refers to a person who is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit neatly in the sex binary. 

It’s a naturally occurring variation that causes someone to have internal or external sex organs that are a mixture of the expected ‘male’ and ‘female’ sex organs, or different to those expected based on their chromosomes. Most people either have XX or XY chromosomes, which correspond with having traditionally female biology or traditionally female biology. Some intersex people have XX or XY, but not the sex organs generally associated with those chromosomes, or some have other variations such as XXY.

Intersex History

Intersex people have been around for as long as humanity itself and the variation is seen in hundreds of different species. The word intersex started being used in the early 20th century. While it was an accepted variation in human genetics for hundreds of years, the 19th and 20th centuries saw intersex characteristics increasingly medicalized and surgeons commonly tried to “fix” the sex organs and hormones of intersex children.

Generally, there is no medical reason to operate on an intersex child. The practice is grounded in discomfort with sexes and genders that fall outside the male/female binary, despite these variations being a natural part of human life.

What Causes It?

Being intersex often has an unknown cause. Variations can be caused by a genetic mutation in a fetus, an extra or missing sex chromosome, differences in the way a child’s body produces and responds to hormones or other medical conditions. In many cases, doctors aren’t able to determine what the cause is.

In most forms of reproduction, spontaneous mutations can occur in the genes, which is how we get lots of forms of human variation, including ginger hair. It’s completely natural and even an expected part of mass reproduction.

What Happens When You’re Born

In some cases, children are known to be intersex from birth, often due to a visible difference in the external genitalia. But sometimes the intersex traits don’t show up or take effect until puberty. Because intersex traits are so varied, they can look very different from one intersex person to another. 

Over the last few hundred years, it has become more common to impose medical interventions on intersex children, which include hormone treatments and surgeries to make the internal and external sex organs look and work more like biologically ‘male’ or biologically ‘female’ sex organs. This is still commonly practiced around the world, despite generally not being medically necessary.

How It Impacts Puberty

How intersex traits affect puberty depends entirely on the intersex traits people have or the cause of their intersex traits. Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) is one of the more common causes of intersex traits and can cause people to go through puberty later than usual or not experience some expected parts of puberty, like hair growth.

But it entirely depends on the intersex person’s individual traits. Some people don’t realize they’re intersex until puberty, when they may experience changes that don’t align with their gender identity or presumed gender. This can make puberty stressful and isolating for intersex people as their puberty may look very different from their peers.

Is It Different From Being Transgender?

Being intersex and being transgender are very different. In simple terms, transgender people identify as a different gender than the one assigned to them at birth. Intersex people have variations in their sex characteristics that don’t fit neatly into what’s expected of male or female biology.

Intersex people can identify in a variety of ways – male, female, non-binary, or any other gender identity. Similar to transgender people, the sex characteristics and genitalia someone has don’t always align with how people identify. If you’re not sure how someone identifies or what pronouns they use, just ask (nicely).

How Common Is This Condition?

Being intersex is far more common than most people think. It’s estimated that between one and two percent of the population are intersex – this is about the same as people with naturally red hair. 

Let’s compare it with another natural variation in human reproduction: having identical twins. Naturally having identical twins (i.e. not through fertility treatment or reproductive therapies) occurs in approximately 1 in every 250 pregnancies. Intersex people make up 1 to 2 in every 100, so it’s significantly more common than identical twins.

What To Do If You Think You’re Intersex

The most common times for someone to be identified as intersex are at birth and during puberty. This is when the variations are noticed or become most obvious. If you’re going through puberty, and you’re experiencing very different things to your peers, see a doctor. Doctors will be able to find out if you’re producing different hormones to those expected or you have variations in your internal sex organs.

Intersex Rights Movement

It has become relatively common practice to perform surgeries on intersex children in order to ‘normalize’ their sex organs. In some cases, there is a medically necessary reason for doing this, but in most cases, there isn’t. The intersex rights movement has risen to fight against these unnecessary surgeries performed on infants without their consent.

The movement is working towards intersex people being accepted for who they are, and being able to make their own decisions about what happens to their bodies. Too often, parents are forced or encouraged to decide the gender of their intersex child so health professionals can “fix” their bodies. Intersex bodies don’t need fixing. Intersex people should be able to consent or not consent to medical intervention when they are old enough to do so, and not have those decisions made for them when they’re an infant.

Growing Activism Today

Thanks to the great work of the intersex rights movement, awareness and understanding of intersex people are growing. Intersex people’s rights and experiences still differ greatly depending on where they are in the world. In 2015, Malta made the amazing step to protect intersex children from non-consensual cosmetic medical interventions. They are also protected from discrimination in Maltese law. The rest of the world is further behind.

There is still work to be done in ensuring intersex children are protected from unnecessary medical intervention and discrimination. For some intersex people, having an option for a gender marker that isn’t male or female on legal documents is also important.

Treatment and Surgery Options

For many intersex people, treatment and surgery is not necessary unless the individual wants and consents to it. In some cases, treatments and surgeries at a young age can be necessary and life-saving. But most aren’t. Treatment and surgery on intersex children should not be rushed or conducted for cosmetic or cultural reasons. Unless its life-saving, intersex people should be able to choose their own treatment options (or none at all) when they are old enough to consent.

Find a Supportive Community

Being intersex can be an isolating experience, particularly in adolescence. Having a good support system around you is important and can go a long way in helping you on your journey to self-acceptance. It’s vital that you have people you can talk to about your experiences, who will support you no matter where your journey takes you.

Learn More with HER

It can be helpful to connect with other intersex people who have had similar experiences, or just connect with other LGBTQ+ people who will love and support you. HER is an inclusive, safe space for people with all different gender identities and sexualities. Whether you want to find people like you, date, or just chat in an accepting environment, you can find it on HER.

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Robyn Exton

Robyn is the CEO & Founder of HER. Find her on Twitter.

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