Calling a Spade a Spade: Intersex is Just Intersex


A few days ago, I received an excerpt from an article-in-progress by a law professor that stated that intersex is increasingly included as a subcategory of transgender.  I’m grateful that she contacted me for feedback, and confident that she’ll edit this out, but I’m shocked at how much people continue to obfuscate intersex.  Why oh why would you want to muddy the definition of a marginalized minority that most people still don’t even know exists?

Transgender is a type of gender identity but intersex isn’t, for the same reason that “male” and “female” aren’t: it’s about biological sex.  It’s not about our “internal sense of ourselves,” or how we “feel”, or what we “identify as.” It has nothing to do with what’s going on in someone’s brain: it’s about the fact that we’re born with bodies that don’t fit the typical definitions of “male” and “female.” We have a mix of anatomical sex traits (gonads, chromosomes, and/or genitals) that are typically considered both male and female, or atypical for either.

My critique isn’t just about wanting to be defined correctly though: it’s about the fact that it’s dangerous to confuse people about what intersex is when there’s still an ongoing effort to eliminate us. Yes, intersex is so stigmatized that we’re legally subjected to abuses awful enough to be called “mutilation” (Female Genital Mutilation, to be exact) and outlawed in the U.S. when they’re done to non-intersex people. I’m talking about infant genital cutting, and if you’ve heard from intersex people who had it done to them, you know it’s even more horrible than it sounds.

People are usually shocked when they first hear about it, and say things like, “I don’t understand how that’s even allowed,” but it’s easy for abuse to exist when no one knows it’s going on. It’s the reason why shady “back-door deals” exist; why cheaters cheat.  It’s why the “Silence = Death” slogan was so popular during the early AIDS crisis.

Incidentally, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture recently issued a report that “calls upon all States to repeal any law allowing intrusive and irreversible treatments, including forced genital-normalizing surgery… when enforced or administered without the free and informed consent of the person concerned.”

It’s a joyous development — and we thank our colleagues at Advocates for Informed Choice for their role in achieving it! —  but each country has the power to make its own laws on the topic. In the U.S., for example, decisions about what to do to children’s bodies lay legally in the hands of their parents, unless grave harms can be proven to result from those decisions. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat of an arduous process to prove harms.

Thus intersex people must break through people’s cultural resistance to accepting us in order for “normalizing” surgeries to stop, and the last thing we need is confusion about who we are and what we deal with.  Calling us a gender identity incorrectly implies that our issues are about what we “identify as,” rather than about being born with atypical bodies and not having the right to decide what happens to them.

We usually don’t have the luxury of growing up intact and choosing whether we wish to change our bodies.  These choices are made for us by doctors and parents trying to make us “normal” males or females via surgery and hormones. They do it because mainstream society hasn’t openly recognized and accepted intersex, and they’re trying to shield us from potential discrimination.  But treating intersex people like we’re so flawed that we need to be “fixed” furthers the stigma.  And getting rid of intersex traits just leaves less of us capable of showing society that these traits are okay. It’s like trying to deal with racism, and protect kids from it, by making their skin white.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, some people also erase intersex through language. Even though they know what intersex is, scientifically speaking, they ignore or hide the facts when portraying us. For example, I once had a medical doctor ask me, several times, “but which one do you feel more like, a man or a woman?” when I saw her to find out more about my intersex variation.

I kept telling her that I didn’t care about that, that I knew I was intersex and was fine with it, but apparently she wasn’t, because she couldn’t just to talk to me about my being intersex. After checking my ovaries she said, “You’re a perfectly normal woman.”  She was trying to comfort me, but she was actually insulting what I am because I know I’m not a “normal” woman — in the sense of being a physically average woman — and I don’t need to deny that as if it’s a negative thing. It’s not.  Like I told her, I wasn’t confused about my gender and I didn’t need counseling; I just wanted medical information.

Then there’s the radio interview I listened to that was advertised as being about someone “who visited a hospital for a kidney stone and discovered he was intersex.” The host was a medical doctor, and she explained how the guest, who had grown up legally male and lived as a man, had learned late in life that they had some internal female anatomy.


Even though the whole reason the guest was getting media attention was because they were intersex, the word “intersex” wasn’t used once in the whole 80 minutes.  Not even to just define what it is. What’s worse, when one of the panelists described the situation he said, “So he went into the hospital as a man, and discovered that he was… a woman.” Granted, the discovery of being intersex had given “him” the courage to transition to living as “her,” which is similar to many trans* experiences (and accounted for the segment being called, “Living Transgender”).  But why not just say she’s transgender and intersex?  Why omit intersex altogether?

I saw the same thing recently in an article about a lioness that has a mane, like male lions do. Even though the article explained that she were born that way due to atypical developments in utero, the headline read, “’Transsexual’ lioness growing a mane.” Apparently they preferred to portray it as a case of a lioness injecting itself with hormones to grow a mane instead of just biological sex variation. Is it really that hard to just say “intersex”? Really?

Clearly, some people want to remain in denial that intersex exists. It’s like their brain hears what we are and then goes, “la, la, la, la, la, can’t hear you,” and immediately morphs us into something else.  Or erases us altogether.

Given this, I want to repeat, for the record, that there’s male, there’s female, and there’s intersex.  We’re not a myth or a theory — we exist. In fact, at 1.9% of the population, we’re about as common as people with red hair. The only reason you may not know that you’ve met an intersex person is because the world hasn’t been safe enough for us to come out of hiding.  So to those of you who write about intersex, if you’re going to use our existence to support your work and/or theories, please don’t turn a blind eye to the injustices against us. Please take the opportunity to expose them, and help thousands by doing so.

Thanks everyone!  :)