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INTERSEX
 

Intersex Society of North America

How Common is Intersex?

Wikipedia: Intersex Defined

Intersex: More Than a Diagnosis

APA: Answers to Intersex Questions

 

What is Intersex?

 

“Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.

 

Though we speak of intersex as an inborn condition, intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.
 

Time Mag: This is What Intersex Means

Video: What it's Like to be Intersex

Here’s What it Really Means to be Intersex

Human Rights Watch: Doctors Need Intersex Care Standards

MedLine Plus: Intersex

Intersex People Don't Need to Be Fixed

Wikipedia: Hermaphrodite

Vogue: Intersex Fashion Model Hanne Gabby Odiele

 

Anatomy and Intersex

Which variations of sexual anatomy count as intersex? In practice, different people have different answers to that question. That’s not surprising, because intersex isn’t a discreet or natural category.

What does this mean? Intersex is a socially constructed category that reflects real biological variation. To better explain this, we can liken the sex spectrum to the color spectrum. There’s no question that in nature there are different wavelengths that translate into colors most of us see as red, blue, orange, yellow. But the decision to distinguish, say, between orange and red-orange is made only when we need it (like when we’re asking for a particular paint color). Sometimes social necessity leads us to make color distinctions that otherwise would seem incorrect or irrational, as, for instance, when we call certain people “black” or “white” when they’re not especially black or white as we would otherwise use the terms.

In the same way, nature presents us with sex anatomy spectrums. Breasts, penises, clitorises, scrotums, labia, gonads (all of these vary in size and shape and morphology). So-called “sex” chromosomes can vary quite a bit, too. But in human cultures, sex categories get simplified into male, female, and sometimes intersex, in order to simplify social interactions, express what we know and feel, and maintain order.

 

So nature doesn’t decide where the category of “male” ends and the category of “intersex” begins, or where the category of “intersex” ends and the category of “female” begins. Humans decide. Humans (today, typically doctors) decide how small a penis has to be, or how unusual a combination of parts has to be, before it counts as intersex. Humans decide whether a person with XXY chromosomes or XY chromosomes and androgen insensitivity will count as intersex.

Research conducted by the Intersex Society of North America finds that doctors’ opinions about what should count as “intersex” vary substantially. Some think you have to have “ambiguous genitalia” to count as intersex, even if your inside is mostly of one sex and your outside is mostly of another. Some think your brain has to be exposed to an unusual mix of hormones prenatally to count as intersex. So that even if you’re born with atypical genitalia, you’re not intersex unless your brain experienced atypical development. And some think you have to have both ovarian and testicular tissue to count as intersex.

 



Rather than trying to play a semantic game that never ends, the ISNA (Intersex Society of North America) takes a pragmatic approach to the question of who counts as intersex. They work to build a world free of shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgeries for anyone born with what someone believes to be non-standard sexual anatomy.

By the way, because some forms of intersex signal underlying metabolic concerns, a person who thinks she or he might be intersex should seek a diagnosis and find out if she or he needs professional healthcare.
 

Intersex Society of North America

How Common is Intersex?

Wikipedia: Intersex Defined

Intersex: More Than a Diagnosis

APA: Answers to Intersex Questions

 

Intersex Defined

According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 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.

Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all.

 



The Foreign Affairs Council of the Council of the European Union defined intersex in guidelines on the promotion of human rights in foreign affairs (2013) this way: "The term intersex covers bodily variations in regard to culturally established standards of maleness and femaleness, including variations at the level of chromosomes, gonads and genitals."

A more medicalized definition describes biological sex as determined by five factors present at birth:

--number and type of sex chromosomes
--type of gonads (ovaries or testicles)
--sex hormones
--internal reproductive anatomy (uterus in females)
--external genitalia

People whose five characteristics are not either all typically male or all typically female at birth are intersex.

Intersex traits are not always apparent at birth. Some babies may be born with ambiguous genitals, while others may have ambiguous internal organs (testes and ovaries). Others will not become aware that they are intersex unless they receive genetic testing, because it does not manifest in their phenotype.

 

 

Time Mag: This is What Intersex Means

Video: What it's Like to be Intersex

Here’s What it Really Means to be Intersex

Human Rights Watch: Doctors Need Intersex Care Standards

MedLine Plus: Intersex

Intersex People Don't Need to Be Fixed

Wikipedia: Hermaphrodite

Vogue: Intersex Fashion Model Hanne Gabby Odiele

 

Biological Combination

 

Some people are born with a mix of male and female biological traits that can make it hard for doctors to assign them a male or female sex. These people are intersex.

 

 What does intersex mean?  The intersex definition is a person is born with a combination of male and female biological characteristics, such as chromosomes or genitals, and that can make it difficult for doctors to assign their sex as distinctly male or female.

 

Being intersex is a naturally occurring variation in humans, and isn’t a medical problem. It’s also more common than most people realize. It’s hard to know exactly how many people are intersex, but estimates suggest that about 1 in 100 people born in the US is intersex.

 

There are many different intersex variations. Some intersex people have ambiguous genitalia or internal sex organs, such as a person with both ovarian and testicular tissues. Other intersex people have a combination of chromosomes that is different than XY (male) and XX (female), like XXY. And some people are born with what looks like totally male or totally female genitals, but their internal organs or hormones released during puberty don’t match.

 

If a person is born with intersex genitalia, they might be identified as intersex at birth. For people born with more clearly male or female external genitals, they might not know they’re intersex until later in life, like when they go through puberty. Sometimes a person can live their whole life without ever discovering that they’re intersex.

 

What happens when someone is born intersex?  Awareness of intersex conditions is growing. In the past, when a baby was born intersex, doctors and the family would decide on a gender and raise the baby as that gender (either male or female). It was common for surgery to be done on the baby’s genitals and also for the child to be given male or female hormones as they went through puberty. But of course sometimes the gender they picked didn’t match the gender identity the young person grew up to have.

 

So today, more and more people believe unnecessary surgery and other medical interventions should be postponed until intersex people are old enough to decide for themselves what gender they identify with and what, if any, treatments they want.

 

If you have a child who is intersex, open conversation about gender is especially important throughout your child’s life, whether or not your child has gender-assignment surgery. It can help your child develop a healthy gender identity and body image.

 

[Source: Planned Parenthood]

 

 

 

Time Mag: This is What Intersex Means

Video: What it's Like to be Intersex

Here’s What it Really Means to be Intersex

MedLine Plus: Intersex

Intersex People Don't Need to Be Fixed

Wikipedia: Hermaphrodite

Vogue: Intersex Fashion Model Hanne Gabby Odiele

 

Intersex Vs. Hermaphrodite

 

There’s a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be intersex, and how intersex people differ from hermaphrodites.

 

Hermaphrodites are living things that have fully functioning sets of “male” AND “female” reproductive anatomy, either at the same time, or at different times during their life cycles.  They include various species of plants, fish, mollusks, and other little beasties, but not humans.  It’s biologically impossible for humans to have full, functional sets of “M” and “F” reproductive anatomy, so we aren’t hermaphrodites.

 

Intersex people, on the other hand, are those that have a mix of traits traditionally considered “male” or “female” (and sometimes, traits that are atypical for males or females) in the same body.  For example, I have breasts and a vagina (“F” traits) and also have XY chromosomes and was born with testes (“M” traits).  Some intersex people may also have traits such as ovoteses (gonads with both testicular and ovarian tissue), chromosome types like XXY, or a phalloclitoris that is sometimes described as a large clitoris or a small penis.

 

Here’s a scientific fact: The penis and the clitoris derive from the same developmental tissue, hence, the term phalloclitoris. The term “ambiguous genitalia” is often used here.  In actuality, everyone’s genital form is just as real as everyone else’s, no one’s is “ambiguous.” 

 

There’s a ton of variation in what our bodies look like and how they function.  Think about the people you know and how different everyone’s body and build is, even though we all have bodies.  It’s the same thing for intersex people. There is a variety of ways our bodies can look in terms of what traits we do and don’t have, what our bodies do and don’t do.  Intersex is really an umbrella term for the many different, distinct ways bodies can be.  Even within a form of intersex, there can be a lot of variation.

 

So, why do folks sometimes confuse intersex people with hermaphrodites?  In short, because of history.  Doctors applied this label to intersex people several centuries ago, and calling intersex folks “hermaphrodites” is really problematic for the following reasons:

 

--It’s not biologically accurate.

 

--The term derives from Greek mythology where the kid of Hermes and Aphrodite (Hermaphroditus) basically gets attacked and fused together with this water nymph.  And together, they form a “half-male, half-female” being. So, calling intersex people “hermaphrodites” implies that we’re not real, that we’re mythical creates that don’t exist.  That’s both inaccurate and offensive.

 

--Intersex people associate this term with the stigmatizing cosmetic procedures clinicians performed (and sadly, routinely perform today) on intersex kids without their consent, with the idea that surgeries and other procedures will make us LOOK like “normal boys and girls,” so we’ll BE normal boys and girls.  I probably don’t need to tell you how totally messed up this is.  This is what intersex activists are working toward:  to end these unnecessary, harmful procedures and ensure our right to keep the healthy, beautiful bodies we’re born with.  Intersex isn’t a medical condition, and we DON’T need fixing.

 

Even though it’s widely considered offensive and not-okay to refer to intersex people as “hermaphrodites,” some intersex folks have reclaimed the term as a positive way to engage with other intersex people.  For example, I get “herm hugs” from some of my intersex friends, and one intersex activist I know, who’s a lesbian, has referred to herself as a “hermaphrodyke.” 

 

[Source: Claudia Astorino, Everyone is Gay]

 


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