How Intersex People Identify
By Hida Viloria and Dana Zzyym.
Much has been said recently, on the heels of all the media attention on Caitlin Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, about the issue of how people “identify”. Meanwhile, Intersex people have also been getting attention in the media, and an increasing amount of folks are finally aware of the fact that we exist.
Given both these factors, it seems like a good time to discuss where Intersex people fall into the discussion of “identifying” oneself. First off, in case you still haven’t heard of us: intersex people are born with bodies that are not typically or exclusively male or female. Although many folks are just recently learning about us, our existence is nothing new, but rather, dates back to the beginning of humanity. We were known as hermaphrodites in ancient times, and we’re just another example of the natural diversity of the human species.
[Note: For all you grammar nerds and/or careful readers out there, you may notice that the word “intersex” is sometimes capitalized in this piece and sometimes not; that’s because one of us likes to capitalize the word as an expression of pride, and the other, while also proud, is more of stickler for grammatical correctness.]
Before diving in, we note that lots of folks, both intersex and not, feel that intersex people shouldn’t have to “identify” as such: meaning, we are intersex simply because we were born that way. It’s a biology based viewpoint similar to the way that people born with male sex characteristics don’t have to “identify” as “men” because it’s just assumed that they are. (Note we didn’t say that their “biological sex” was male, but that they have male “sex characteristics”. Cool huh? More on that in another essay.)
At the same time, it has also been increasingly stated that not all people who are born Intersex “identify” as intersex, but rather, as men or women. It makes perfect sense to those of us who know, love, and/or support trans people. We realize folks don’t always grow up to identify as the gender associated with the biological sex traits they were born with.
However, it’s very important to recognize that some of us who were born intersex also identify as such. That may seem obvious, but it bears repeating, given popular claims that the vast majority of us have binary gender identities, and that intersex people are not part of the non-binary gender community.
We are very aware, from personal as well as advocacy experience, that it’s difficult to identify as something that hasn’t been socially recognized or accepted. In fact, we’ve often been told by folks just discovering that they were born Intersex that they’ve been identifying as men or women all their lives simply because those were the only categories available to them. Indeed, that’s how openly genderfluid actress Ruby Rose recently answered the question when it was put to her character on the popular television series Orange is the New Black. Piper asks, “You don’t consider yourself to be a woman?” and Stella, Rose’s character, responds, “I do, but only because my options are limited.”
Given the limited options, and the fact that many intersex children are even more pressured to identify as either boys or girls than their non-intersex peers, it’s easy to see why many of us would do so as adults. Saying that most intersex people do not identify as intersex without taking these significant social factors into account is like having said, “most homosexuals do not identify as gay or lesbian”, before it was common, accepted or safe for them to do so.
Gays and lesbians have always existed, long before they began “identifying” as such, and it’s important to keep in mind that the same is true for intersex people. If we don’t, we run the risk of confusing folks into thinking that, since most of us don’t “identify” as intersex, then non-consensual “normalizing” surgeries are okay as long as we pick the “right one”. Mind you, this reasoning is faulty as it misses the central human rights issue we advocate for, which is that only we have the right to make such decisions about our bodies; but sadly, I’ve often seen it.
The truth is, humans are a complex bunch, and intersex people, like all humans, identify our gender in a variety of ways and should have the right to do so. Some even prefer not to “identify” at all, stating that they were born intersex and do not have to “identify” as any particular gender identity. However, there’s now a “gender identity” which describes that experience: agender. Also, humans are required to legally identify their gender, and almost all languages use pronouns that are gendered in some way, so even if one wants to be genderless, it’s not yet entirely possible to escape identifying our gender, or having it identified for us.
Here, then, is a breakdown of the three main ways in which Intersex people “identify” our gender.
- Some intersex people identify with the gender associated with the sex they were assigned at birth (male or female). They express this with the terms “male” or “female”, “man” or “woman”, and/or “intersex man” or “intersex woman”.
Trans and intersex scholar Cary Gabriel Costello has suggested the term “ipso gender” for intersex people with this experience in order to distinguish them from non-intersex people who share it, typically known as “cisgender”. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “cisgender” was recently added to the Oxford Dictionary, and is defined as, “Denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender.”)
This distinction is important because, as discussed in one of our earlier essays, intersex people are vulnerable to extreme forms of violence and discrimination which non-intersex cisgender people are not. Indeed, we are still routinely subjected to non-consensual “normalizing” surgeries, aka Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM), precisely because of the strong prejudice which exists against the nonbinary gender associated with our biological sex characteristics. This holds true whether or not we have normative gender identities or expressions, and does not correspond at all with the experience of “cisgender privilege” (see some examples of cisgender privilege below).
- Some Intersex people identify as the gender associated with the ”opposite” sex as the one they were assigned at birth. They, too, may express this with the terms “male’ or “female”, “man” or “woman”, and/or “intersex man” or “intersex woman”. In addition, some of the intersex people in this category identify as trans, as their lived experience may be very similar to that of trans people, and may say they are both trans and intersex.
- Some intersex people – including the authors of this piece — identify as neither men or women, or both men and women. We may express this with the terms, “herms”, “genderqueer”, “genderfluid”, “nonbinary” and other non-binary gender identities, “non-binary Intersex people”, or simply, “intersex”.
Some of you may be noticing that the intersex folks in this third category could be defined as cisgender because our gender identity matches our natal biological sex characteristics. However, just like intersex folks with binary gender identities, we do not experience cisgender privilege. In short, although created with the good intention of pointing to and dismantling the discrimination that trans people face, the term cisgender is based on the erroneously binary model of sex, and thus only works, as intended, if you pretend that intersex people don’t exist. (If you want to learn more about why, you can find an in-depth explanation here).
Those of us who fall into this third category feel that our non-binary gender identity matches our original non-binary sex characteristics, and we note that this outcome is exactly what those who promote Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) are often hoping to avoid. They incorrectly assume that changing our bodies will produce hetero-normative, gender-normative outcomes. It doesn’t. We know tons of intersex people whom, regardless of being subjected to IGM, have grown up to be L, G. B, T or Q – and unless you’re a big bigot you should realize that there’s nothing wrong with that!
Sadly however, nonbinary intersex people have often been further marginalized even within the intersex community. Some, for example, have criticized intersex people who identify their gender as Intersex, stating this is not appropriate since “intersex” is a biological term. However, we note that biological sex and gender terms became interchangeable in the U.S. legal system when the first trans person was allowed to change their gender marker: rather than using “man” or “woman” to describe their new legal gender, the terms “male” or “female” were, and continue to be, used. Also, many trans people today use the biological terms male and female in social discourse to describe their gender identity. So basically, when it comes to how humans live their lives and are legally identified, “sex” and “gender” and the terms associated with them are conflated and used interchangeably. Thus, in an equal society, Intersex people should be similarly allowed to use our biological term to identify our gender if we wish.
We believe that marginalization of non binary intersex people is most likely due to the double whammy of discrimination which we elicit. It has been acknowledged that other marginalized communities, such as people of color, have sometimes displayed resistance to embracing, or outright disavowed, the existence of queer people of color because of the fact that associating with the LGBT community brings even more stigma to people of color. Similarly, the intersex community has sometimes done the same to its gender-nonconforming members, because having gender identities as well as bodies that vary from gender norms is additionally stigmatized. Thus, we have often had to confront the policing of our gender identity in statements such as, “one cannot identify as intersex”–often made by the same intersex people who find it perfectly acceptable to identify as males or females. We have also had to address unsubstantiated claims that “the vast majority of intersex people identify as men or women”, which attempt to use the social desirability of binary gender identities as a tool for gaining acceptance of intersex people. These claims not only inherently devalue those of us with nonbinary gender identities, but they have also been fed to the LGBT community, leading to a misperception that intersex people are not non binary which has often resulted in our exclusion from the genderqueer/non binary community.
It is important to note that while enormous efforts have been made by some intersex activists to spread gender conforming beliefs about intersex people growing up to be men or women, these claims haven’t slowed down the practice of nonconsensual surgeries/IGM. This is because, as Audre Lorde so brilliantly put it, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. In other words, we can’t stop “normalization” of intersex people by trying to convince people that we’ll all grow up to have “normal” – i.e. binary — gender identities. We must instead confront and dismantle the fear and hatred of non binary people which drives discrimination such as IGM..
The Intersex Campaign for Equality, a.k.a. OII-USA, believes that all gender identities are normal and equal, and that everyone has the right to experience and identify their gender as they wish. Further, we believe that visibility and acceptance of intersex people as whole individuals with our own unique gender is critical towards ending the oppression of Intersex people, and we are dedicated to spreading awareness of the fact that Intersex people identify as males, females, AND intersex persons – and that that is okay!
Like all people, Intersex people are a diverse bunch, with a wide range of identities. We support them all, and encourage you to do the same. <3
I am inter* and I identify as trans*. But I am not really transitioning from anything, other than a “best guess” sex notation on my 1943 birth certificate. I have always been the way I am now. Perhaps it has only been in recent years that I have publically stated my true self. As world society gets educated about Intersexuality, I am sure language will change to better describe those of us who upset the binary gender myth.
I started out thinking “oh no, not somebody else trying to tell us what we are, and what we should not be, again”… but actually, this sums things up pretty well. I agree that “cis” simply fails to reflect what I have been through as somebody born intersex and who now identifies as intersex. I prefer the term “lieu-gender” to “ipso”, as essentially, in cases where there is room for doubt, a gender is assigned “in-lieu” of knowing what the gender might be preferable to the child itself. But I completely agree that the “cis”/”trans” dichotomy fails to address the situation of many intersex people, and shoe-horning a third category to bolster-up that dichotomy makes as much sense as insisting that there are only two discrete genders that we can legitimately occupy. I am intersex, that is how I was born, that is how I am now – and so much of my life was wasted with attempts to conform me to one gender or another that never make sense to me. Thanks for writing this, it is refreshing to hear that there are others who identify as I do, and argue that it is OK to identify this way – when there are those who insist we cannot possibly do so. I identify as intersex, my identity is intersex, I am intersex. Period.
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Lovely!
I’ve known of the existence of intersex people for a long time, but never before thought about the oppression they face. Thank you for increasing my awareness. I share with you the hope that one day ALL peaple will be able to live with dignity, love and joy.