What is intersex? Defining intersex

This page presents a range of international and Australian definitions of intersex. They demonstrate the innate physical nature of intersex variations, and how our diverse range of sex characteristics differ from typical norms for ‘male’ or ‘female’. They frequently recognise how intersex people have a diversity of identities, including gender identities.

Working definition

As a simple working definition of intersex, OII Australia uses the following statement:

Intersex people are born with physical sex characteristics that don’t fit medical norms for female or male bodies.

An earlier definition:

Intersex people are born with physical, hormonal or genetic features that are neither wholly female nor wholly male; or a combination of female and male; or neither female nor male.

We have discontinued use of this definition, even though it is based on that in the Sex Discrimination Act (Cth), because it is primarily based on a model of deficits: what we don’t have, or what we lack.

International definitions

In September 2015, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights used a longer definition in a Fact Sheet on intersex:

Intersex people are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies… Because their bodies are seen as different, intersex children and adults are often stigmatized and subjected to multiple human rights violations, including violations of their rights to health and physical integrity, to be free from torture and ill-treatment, and to equality and non- discrimination.

The Fact Sheet is available in a number of languages via the Free & Equal campaign.

The Council of Europe, in a 2013 explanatory memorandum to Resolution 1952 on Children’s right to physical integrity, defined intersex as follows:

The term “intersex” refers to atypical and internal and/or external anatomical sexual characteristics, where features usually regarded as male or female may be mixed to some degree. This is a naturally occurring variation in humans and not a medical condition. It is to be distinguished from transsexuality, a phenomenon where someone has an evident sex, but feels as if he or she belongs to the other sex and is therefore ready to undergo a medical intervention altering his or her natural sex.

Australian definitions

In the 2015 report, “Resilient Individuals: Sexual Orientation Gender Identity & Intersex Rights 2015“, the Australian Human Rights Commission defines intersex as:

The term ‘intersex’ refers to people who are born with genetic, hormonal or physical sex characteristics that are not typically ‘male’ or ‘female’. Intersex people have a diversity of bodies and identities.

The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 added the following definition to federal anti-discrimination law:

intersex status means the status of having physical, hormonal or genetic features that are: (a) neither wholly female nor wholly male; or (b) a combination of female and male; or (c) neither female nor male.

Note that this definition deliberately contains no barrier preventing people perceived to be intersex from gaining protection from the law. The definition of “intersex status” is also differentiated from both “sex” and “gender identity”.

2013 Australian Commonwealth guidelines on sex and gender recognition underwent minor revision in 2015. Previously the introduction to the guide stated:

An intersex person may have the biological attributes of both sexes or lack some of the biological attributes considered necessary to be defined as one or the other sex. Intersex is always congenital and can originate from genetic, chromosomal or hormonal variations. Environmental influences such as endocrine disruptors can also play a role in some intersex differences. People who are intersex may identify their gender as male, female or X.

Now the guide states:

12. The term intersex refers to people who are born with genetic, hormonal or physical sex characteristics that are not typically ‘male’ or ‘female’. Intersex people have a diversity of bodies and gender identities, and may identify as male or female or neither.

This is contradicted somewhat by the definition of ‘X’, a third gender classification, as “Indeterminate/Intersex/Unspecified“. OII Australia, together with the National LGBTI Health Alliance, Transgender Victoria and other trans organisations have formally requested that ‘X’ be redefined as “non-binary” in the guidelines.

The three gender options comprise the full range of options available according to the guidelines, but some intersex people have other identities not covered in the guidelines.

Medical definitions

It is important to note that an invitation-only meeting in Chicago in 2006 reported in Summary of Consensus Statement on Intersex Disorders and Their Management coined a controversial new term, “Disorders of Sex Development” aimed at replacing the term intersex in medical settings:

“disorders of sex development” (DSD) is proposed to indicate congenital conditions with atypical development of chromosomal, gonadal, or anatomic sex.

Stated due to “[a]dvances in molecular genetic causes of abnormal sexual development and heightened awareness of the ethical and patient-advocacy issues“, this new language reasserted medical authority in the light of successful intersex activism that identified our issues as human rights, and is strongly contested. It pathologises intersex variations as inherently disordered, and according to Morgan Holmes, “reinstitutionalises clinical power to delineate and silence those marked by the diagnosis“. OII Australia opposes use of the term DSD because of these factors.

Since 2013, a range of medical and scientific papers have employed a variety of language such as “intersex“, “intersex traits“, “diverse sex development“, and “diverse sex development, also known as intersex (DSDI)“.

The World Health Organization’s Genomic resource centre gives an undated definition:

Intersex is defined as a congenital anomaly of the reproductive and sexual system.

A 2014 joint paper on “Eliminating forced, coercive and otherwise involuntary sterilization” by the World Heath Organization, OHCHR, UN Women, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNFPA and UNICEF states simply that “Intersex persons …[are] born with atypical sex characteristics.” The report makes a series of recommendations aimed at changing current clinical practices, improving health outcomes and human rights, and providing reparations.

More information

This page is not intended as an introduction to intersex.

This page is occasionally updated with new content.