Intersex for allies
Who are intersex people?
Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that do not fit stereotypical definitions for female or male bodies. Many different forms of intersex exist; it is an umbrella term, rather than a single variation.
Some common intersex traits are diagnosed prenatally. Intersex variations may be apparent at birth or become apparent at puberty, or when trying to conceive, or through random chance.
How common are intersex people?
The lowest popular statistic is around 1 in 2,000 people (.05% of births) but a more likely figure may be closer to 1.7%. This makes intersex differences about as common as red hair.
Are intersex and hermaphrodite the same?
Biologically, no. Hermaphrodites (such as snails) possess fully functioning sets of both “male” and “female” sex organs. This is impossible in mammals.
Linguistically, the word originates in the Greek myth of Hermaphroditus who was both male and female, having elements of both sexes.
Some intersex diagnoses have been termed “pseudo-hermaphrodites” or “true-hermaphrodites”. While some intersex people use the term, others find it stigmatising due to that medical history. If in doubt, it is best only used by people with intersex variations.
Do intersex people have health issues?
Like all people, people with intersex variations have health issues. In a few diagnoses, immediate medical attention is needed from birth, but being intersex is not a health issue in and of itself. Natural intersex bodies are most often healthy.
Intersex people frequently need hormone replacement. This may be due to medical intervention.
Why are intersex people subjected to medical intervention?
Medical intervention attempts to make the bodies of people with intersex variations conform to ideals of male or female. Current medical protocols are based on the ideas that infant genital surgery and other interventions will “minimise family concern and distress” and “mitigate the risks of stigmatisation and gender-identity confusion”.
Surgical interventions intrinsically focus on appearance, and not sensation or sexual function. Childhood cosmetic genital surgeries and sex hormone treatments are also problematic as children cannot consent to them. Adolescents, and even adults, have also reported pressure by doctors or families to conform to societal norms. Some doctors still believe that disclosure of a person’s intersex status would be too alarming.
Very many intersex people suffer the physical and emotional effects of surgery, and related shame and secrecy. At a fundamental level, homophobia, intolerance and ancient superstitions underpin contemporary mistreatment of intersex people.
Audio: Shon Klose speaks about medical intervention in an interview with ABC Alice Springs
(2 parts, around 15 minutes in total).
What is DSD?
In 2006, a group of doctors replaced the umbrella term intersex with “Disorders of Sex Development” or DSD. The collective term DSD reinforces the idea that intersex traits are individual medical conditions or disorders that need to be fixed.
There are some intersex people who use the term today – especially when accessing healthcare, or when first taught DSD by parents or doctors. People with intersex variations are free to use any label, but the term intersex has become even more accepted and widespread today.
We believe that stigmatising language leads to poor mental health, marginalisation, and exclusion from human rights and social institutions. The term intersex promotes equality and human rights for people born with atypical sex characteristics.
Tony Briffa talks about growing up intersex as part of the “West and Proud” movie.
Tony Briffa writes on “Disorders of sex development”.
What gender identities do intersex people have?
Intersex is a lived experience of the body and intersex people have a broad range of gender identities, just like non-intersex people. The identities of people with intersex variations may sometimes not match our appearance. Having a non-binary gender identity does not automatically make someone intersex.
Intersex people have all sorts of identities: Inter/Act (US) talk with Buzzfeed.
Are intersex people transgender or gender diverse?
The gender identities of intersex people frequently match our assignments at birth, and sometimes they may be freely chosen. Some people who have chosen their gender may identify as transgender or gender diverse.
Intersex bodies have diverse physical sex characteristics; many intersex people have an experience of involuntary medical treatment to impose stereotypical sex characteristics, or are at risk of this. This makes descriptions of intersex people as “cis” or “cisgender” problematic.
Are intersex people gay or lesbian, or queer?
It depends on the individual, how they define their gender and identity, how they present, and who they form relationships with. Every intersex person is different. Some people with intersex variations are LGB or queer, and some are heterosexual.
We share common goals with the LGBT movement as we all fall outside of expected sex and gender norms. Intersex is part of LGBTI because of intersex status and a shared experience of stigma, not because of sexual orientation or gender identity.
What do intersex activists seek?
To raise awareness, and achieve an equal place in society. We seek the right to bodily autonomy, the right to a life without stigma and discrimination, and the right to a life without shame and secrecy.
Being an ally to intersex people
- Consider what you do to support intersex inclusion in health and human rights initiatives.
- Adopt the recommendations of the Third International Intersex Forum in Malta, 2013 at oii.org.au/declaration
- Change your language and frame of reference. Intersex status is distinct from sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. These are each recognised separately in the federal Sex Discrimination Act.
- Put people with intersex variations and intersex-led organisations front and centre when talking about intersex.
- Many medical studies of people with intersex variations explicitly identify gender identity issues and non-heterosexual behaviours as reasons for medical treatment. Non-consensual surgery is an LGBTI issue as it shows what can happen when non-heteronormative people are established to be “born this way”. Ally with our call to end normalising interventions on intersex children.
- Include intersex in education and service access policies, and in employment, diversity and inclusion, and anti-bullying policies.
- Adopt federal guidelines on gender recognition, and offer everyone F, M and X options if you have to record gender in your workplace. Go further and support multiple options. Consider whether your workplace needs to record information on sex, gender and title. Can you offer an option to opt out?
- People with intersex variations should be included in campaigns for marriage equality, but intersex people are not included in same-sex marriage. Marriages in Australia have been annulled on the basis that one party was neither fully male nor fully female.
- Follow and share intersex issues on social media networks.
- Defining intersex: Australian and international definitions.
- Demographic data.
- Style guide, for journalists and writers.
- Key intersex community priorities – concluding statement of the third international intersex forum.
- Statement on the Senate report ‘Involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people in Australia’.
- On intersectionalities with gay and lesbian people, with trans experiences and with disability.
- All FAQs listed – a curated list of key articles on the OII Australia site.
This document is based in some parts on resources including Brief Guidelines for Intersex Allies by Hida Viloria and Claudia Astorino of OII-USA, with permission; a 2008 FAQ by OII; and a 2003 FAQ and Introduction to Intersex Activism A Guide for Allies by the Portland Intersex Initiative.
“Information for parents” introduces intersex for parents. Available to read online.
- We hope that our page for parents will be helpful to you if you have a new baby or if you’re planning a pregnancy, or you’ve recently discovered that your child has an intersex trait, sometimes called a “DSD” or “disorder of sex development“.
Employers’ guide to intersex inclusion developed in collaboration between OII Australia and Pride in Diversity in 2014. Written by Morgan Carpenter and Dawn Hough, the guide is kindly sponsored by IBM. A world-first, the guide presents information about intersex for employers, including:
- An introduction to intersex.
- Intersex bodies, identities, and inclusive language.
- Disclosure, medical issues in the workplace, and travel.
- Protections related to “intersex status” in Commonwealth law.
- Information for diversity and inclusion professionals.
- Top 10 ways to be an intersex ally.
- Information for parents of intersex children.
- Additional information and a glossary of terms.
“Making your service intersex-friendly” is a short guide to help services build intersex-inclusive practice. It helps organisations and businesses to better understand intersex, and respond to community needs. Businesses and institutions will find ways of making services inclusive and respectful, including in data collection. The following issues are addressed:
- Who are intersex people, and what do intersex clients need?
- Data collection on intersex, sexual orientation and gender.
- An example intake form.
- Anti-discrimination law.
- Disclosure and speaking up.
- Inclusive language.
- Body diversity issues.
- What health issues intersex people face.