Sexuality, sex and gender diversity?

What is sexuality, sex and gender diversity

What is sexuality, sex and gender diversity?


Last night I was at a sombre event, an evening commemoration of Transgender Day of Remembrance. Around six people spoke; two of them were trans women of colour, and three speakers were representatives of institutions based in New South Wales.

One of those representatives introduced himself as his organisation’s spokesperson on sexuality, sex and gender diversity. Certainly, “sexuality sex and gender diversity” were on his organisation’s big pink banner – only it wasn’t said like that. He said he was the organisation’s “representative for sex” first, and then paused. He was using the word as a punchline for a joke, for titillation, before going on to talk about the more substantive issues.

The phrase “sexuality, sex and gender diversity” is sometimes now used in Australia as a descriptor for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities and populations. This implies that the word “sex” is supposed to “include” intersex people, but what does it mean to be included as a punchline? And when only sexuality and gender diversity are the substantive issues?

And if that happens at a sombre memorial event then what does that mean for more informal, positive or affirming events?

It was a clear error of judgement but it’s not entirely the representative’s fault: the word “sex” has many different meanings: it means the act of sexual intercourse, it describes a person’s legal status as (typically) male or female. And it is sometimes used as a word to encapsulate biological sex characteristics. It’s used in this sense to contrast biology with gender identity. Kind of.

We know that laws don’t make distinctions between sex and gender, and nor do many languages (including languages widely spoken in Australia). We also know from experience that when people talk about “sex and gender diversity” to mean intersex and transgender populations, they are primarily focusing on issues of legal identity recognition, and then related issues of discrimination. But most intersex people don’t seek to change personal identification documents. Moreover, this omits a whole raft of intersex-specific issues. We’ve written about this before.

So it is, of course, also possible that people using the phrase still assume that the broad diversity of people with intersex bodies and sex characteristics have a homogeneous desire for a third sex classification, and a non-binary gender identity. Biological determinism is just as wrong when applied to people born with intersex traits as it is when applied to transgender and same sex attracted people. While respecting the rights of intersex and non-intersex people alike to hold non-binary, multiple and other identities, the reality is that most intersex people are female or male, women or men.

“Sex diverse” is not a term that would even be recognised as meaning “intersex” internationally as it’s too abstract and unrelated to debates in our own movements. More tellingly, “sex diverse” is not a term that any Australian intersex-led organisation has adopted or endorsed. Most intersex-led organisations are aware of these pitfalls. Using this language means that intersex-led organisations were not consulted.

At OII Australia, our language has changed a little over the years as we navigate those pitfalls.

To be clear, language is still contested within populations of people born with intersex characteristics, but the parameters of those debates are wholly different to those imposed on us by the LGBTI movement: they reflect the persisting dominance of medicine in our lives. Sometimes they reflect a fear of terms that might be used as identity labels.

Evidence available to OII Australia shows that vigorously contested clinical terms like “disorders of sex development” are used by a minority of intersex people in accessing medical services, but rarely in other settings. Some people use diagnostic labels. Some people use multiple different labels depending on occasion and context. But the only word that has any widespread legitimacy is the word “intersex”, whether used alone, or when talking about intersex people, intersex traits, variations or (another influence of medicalisation) conditions.

So what language is preferable? Our style guide can offer some help but our word usages generally follow these guidelines:

  • when talking about an Australian legal status: “intersex status”, for example, “sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status”, but note that the attribute “sex characteristics” is broader in scope and becoming more widely adopted.
  • when talking about sex in its biological sense: “sex characteristics”.
  • if you have to use a term related to “diversity” then the Organization of American States has favoured “body diversity”.

– Morgan Carpenter.

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