Style guide: on intersex and terminology

Darlington retreat

Members of Australian and Aotearoa/NZ intersex organisations, and independent advocates, in Darlington, Sydney, in March 2017. Read our joint Darlington Statement. Photo courtesy of Phoebe Hart.

Intersex is a form of biological diversity

Intersex people are born with physical sex characteristics that don’t fit medical norms for female or male bodies. These include a diverse range of genetic, chromosomal, anatomic and hormonal variations.

Bonnie Hart, Morgan Carpenter, a parent and a clinician talk with SBS TV.
Watch on SBS website; medical interventions still continue on health infants and children, read follow-up article at SBS

Describing intersex

We favour the terms intersex, intersex people, intersex variation, intersex trait. These recognise intersex as a naturally occurring biological phenomenon.

The phrase “people born with intersex variations” is useful as it recognises the diversity of intersex people. At least 40 different variations, with different characteristics, are so far known to science.

We don’t favour the terms intersex condition or hermaphrodite, but we recognise that some intersex people reclaim or use these terms to describe themselves. “Condition” is considered medicalised by many intersex people. “Hermaphrodite” is used in science to describe animals that have a functioning set of both male and female organs so that they may reproduce with or without a mate. No mammals are properly hermaphrodites but some intersex people reclaim an association with older poetic symbolism that other intersex people find contentious.

We don’t favour the terms “intersexual” or “intersexuality”. They most commonly arise in materials translated into English, and some people confuse them with a sexual orientation. We don’t favour “intersexed”, intersex as a verb, as intersex is something we are rather than an action, as if something done to us (or taken away from us).

We never use language like “inter-sex” and we never abbreviate to “IS”.

Many people use diagnostic or chromosomal labels for their variations, sometimes together with a gender label, such as XXY; KS Man; XXY Woman; Complete Androgen Insensitivity; XY Woman; Swyer Syndrome; or Turner Syndrome, and this is completely ok. These labels also describe elements of our life experiences.

We reject “disorder”, “DSD”, or “Disorders of Sex Development”, as pathologizing and stigmatising language that harms intersex people. We also reject “Differences of Sex Development” and similar terms because they will be interpreted as indistinguishable from DSD.

Tony Briffa talks about growing up intersex as part of the “West and Proud” movie.

Medical interventions

We typically describe forced, involuntary, unnecessary and non-consensual gonadal and cosmetic genital surgeries on infants, children and adolescents as just that. We occasionally also use the term “Genital Mutilation”, as it corresponds to the widely used term “Female Genital Mutilation”, but we generally try to refrain from the use of triggering language.

We regard all such interventions without personal and fully informed, prior consent as reprehensible; we campaign to end them.

An overemphasis on infant surgeries as the intersex issue infantilises intersex people. For example, diagnosis and medical interventions are also common during puberty and adolescence. We also seek to create an awareness of involuntary and coerced hormonal treatment. It is important to recognise lifelong impact from coerced or involuntary treatment.

Adults with intersex variations are also subject to coercive treatment, with a particular concern for women in sport who have been assigned female at birth and have a lifelong identification as women.

Forced medical interventions are not simply condemned by intersex human rights organisations; objections are not simply our opinion. Forced medical interventions have been condemned by numerous human rights and other institutions, including United Nations agencies and treaty bodies, the Council of Europe, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and representatives of African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Locally, they have been the subject of a cross-party Australian Senate Committee inquiry that recommended major changes to current clinical practices.

Audio: Shon Klose speaks about medical intervention in an interview with ABC Radio, Alice Springs
(2 parts, around 15 minutes in total).

Intersex and identity

Intersex is a political identity for many people, in just the same way that being a woman, disabled or Aboriginal are identities. These identities are intersectional. It is possible, for example, to be an intersex woman with a disability. But please remember that very many intersex people have an intersex trait or variation. Intersex is better framed as embodiment not identity.

Please do not frame intersex as a form of gender diversity. Like everyone else, intersex people have a diverse range of gender identities, but this is not what defines us as a population. Intersex is better described as a form of bodily diversity.

There are intersex men, intersex women, gender non-conforming intersex people, intersex people with non-binary gender identities, intersex people who are both male and female, and other gender identities.

In many cases, the gender identities of intersex people match our birth assignments; most people born with intersex variations are not transgender or gender diverse.

Some of us have gender identities that differ from our birth assignment. In these cases the original assignment was incorrect. A particular difficulty faced by many intersex people in this situation is that we may have had involuntary and irreversible medical treatment to make our bodies appear more like our incorrect assigned sex.

Morgan Carpenter says in an article published by SBS:

One of our key human rights issues is not really the existence of binary genders, but what is done medically to make us conform to those norms.

We seek autonomy to make choices and decisions about our bodies and identities ourselves.

Like everyone else, intersex people have all sorts of identities: Inter/Act (US) talk with Buzzfeed.

Relationship diversity

Many intersex people are in apparently standard heterosexual relationships, as well as some who are in “LGB” (lesbian, gay or bisexual) relationships, some are in no relationship and some are in queer relationships or ones that do not fit any current codification.

Intersex and alliances

LGBT is sometimes referred to as the “sexuality and gender diverse” community. This was OK until intersex people started speaking up, with our diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and our diverse sex characteristics. Language has begun to shift towards adopting “LGBTI”, and this often encompasses different, additional, populations. With at least three different kinds of intersecting issues within “LGBTI” – bodies, genders and sexualities – we favour deliberateness in language, to help ensure human rights and good health outcomes for all LGBTI populations.

Gina Wilson talks about discrimination and mental health, for beyondblue.

Intersex in anti-discrimination law

In Australia, “intersex status” is an attribute in anti-discrimination law. In Malta, an attribute called “sex characteristics” protects people with intersex variations from discrimination and non-consensual medical interventions, and this approach is recommended by the Council of Europe (although “intersex status” is also supported). The Organisation of American States talks about “body diversity” when talking about protecting people with intersex variations.

In talking about inclusive legal terminology, the language is evolving. Within Australia, we currently favour “SOGII”: “sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex”. Internationally, “SOGIESC” is becoming common: “sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, and sex characteristics”.

Third International Intersex Forum, 2013

Participants at the Third International Intersex Forum, Malta, 2013.


We tend to avoid new terms like “Sex and Gender Diverse” or “Trans Intersex and Gender Diverse”. They are anonymising, homogenising abstractions. Most people and many laws and languages don’t distinguish between sex and gender or understand the terms in the way they are intended. They also tend to promote trans and identity narratives at the expense of intersex and embodiment narratives.

Novel and abstract terms can prevent people from understanding their rights – including access to anti-discrimination protection through the attribute of “intersex status”. They can also demonstrate a lack of cultural competency. We recommend keeping to terminology used by the intersex movement itself.

More information