WHO ARE INTERSEX PEOPLE?
“INTERSEX” is an umbrella term referring to individuals born with sex characteristics that are not typically male or female or are a blend of both.
There are an estimated 30 types of intersex traits, i.e. variations in sex characteristics, comprising variations in chromosomal patterns, reproductive organs, genitalia and/or hormones.
* INTERSEX is not a noun or a thing, it refers to living beings: i.e. “INTERSEX PEOPLE,” “intersex horses,” etceteras.
* It is incorrect to say that someone is “an intersex.”
* INTERSEX is an adjective, like the term “gay.”
* Use “intersex woman,” “intersex person,” “intersex activist,” etceteras, or, in plural: “intersex people,” “intersex individuals,” “intersex citizens, “intersex orgs,” etceteras.
INTERSEX PEOPLE have existed as long as all humans, as intersex status, like typical male and female status, is defined by natural, congenital sex characteristics.
INTERSEX PEOPLE’S BODIES can look male, female, or visibly in between, or mixed, aka androgynous.
INTERSEX PEOPLE’S SEXUAL ORIENTATION AND GENDER IDENTITY manifests in numerous ways, just like non-intersex people’s. We can be straight, bi, queer, etceteras, and our gender identity can be binary–as men or women or intersex men or intersex women–or non-binary. In fact, intersex people whom do not identify as men or women pre-date the term “non-binary,” and have often referred to ourselves with gender neutral terms such as our original Western label “hermaphrodite” (or “herm” for short) or simply as “intersex individuals.”
We highly recommend the United Nation’s INTERSEX FACT SHEET, which we are very proud to have consulted on, if you are looking for a short resource to educate others about intersex people and our human rights issues.
HOW COMMON IS BEING INTERSEX?
The most thorough existing research finds intersex people to constitute 1.7%–2% of the human population,* as common as having red hair or green eyes (1%-2%), which are also caused by developmental variations.
This figure includes multiple intersex variations that, when combined–as they are in medical diagnostics and coding–constitute the 1.7% estimate found by biology professor Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, of Brown University*.
A slightly higher statistic is reported in, “How Sexually Dimorphic Are We?”, by Blackless, et al, in The American Journal of Human Biology. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 12:151–166, 2000. © 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
“The belief that Homo sapiens is absolutely dimorphic with the respect to sex chromosome composition, gonadal structure, hormone levels, and the structure of the internal genital duct systems and external genitalia, derives from the platonic ideal that for each sex there is a single, universally correct developmental pathway and outcome. We surveyed the medical literature from 1955 to the present for studies of the frequency of deviation from the ideal male or female. We conclude that this frequency may be as high as 2% of live births. The frequency of individuals receiving “corrective” genital surgery, however, probably runs between 1 and 2 per 1,000 live births (0.1–0.2%).” https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/%28SICI%291520-6300%28200003/04%2912%3A2%3C151%3A%3AAID-AJHB1%3E3.0.CO%3B2-F
The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA, 1993-2008), popularized the “1 in 2000” (.05%) statistic that is sometimes used, but as they clarified on their website, this statistic refers only to those with ambiguous genitalia:
“If you ask experts at medical centers how often a child is born so noticeably atypical in terms of genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in, the number comes out to about 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births. But a lot more people than that are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which won’t show up until later in life.”
* Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-07713-7.
* From the German “Intersexe”: (of an individual) Having characteristics of both male and female sexes. (biology, zoology). https://etymologeek.com/eng/intersex
*. Coined by German-born American zoologist and geneticist Richard Benedict Goldschmidt (1878—1958), as, “one having characteristics of both sexes,” 1917, from German intersexe (1915). https://www.etymonline.com/word/intersex
* Goldschmidt interbred various geographical races of the spongy moth Lymantria dispar. … In crosses between certain strains of Lymantria, Goldschmidt discovered the occurrence of what he called intersexuality, in which some individuals experienced intermingling of male and female characteristics. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-B-Goldschmidt
SOME INTERSEX HISTORY
People whose intersex status can be visually detected were acknowledged and included within numerous societies for centuries, particularly by indigenous cultures. We have been known by many names, including “Androgynos”–the precursor to today’s English adjective “androgynous–in the ancient Juddaic text, the Talmud. Conversely, people with intersex variations that can only be detected with modern medical testing were not known to be intersex and were idenitfied and perceived–until relatively recently within human history–as men/males or women/females.
“Hermaphrodite” –a term first used to refer to humans, rather than animals (as in the case of “intersex”)– was the original Western label for people whose intersex status can be visually detected. The original usage of the word, from the 14th century, was:
“A person partaking of the attributes of both sexes.”
“Hermaphrodite” was later co-opted to refer to animal species that self-reproduce, resulting in the misconception that “hermaphrodite” only accurately refers to animal species such as snails. This misconception remains to this day due to dehumanizing, discriminatory, anti-intersex/anti-hermaphrodite attitudes, as well as religious, medical and other Western efforts to erase intersex existence and history from public awareness and discourse.
Starting in the late 1950’s, these intersex-erasing efforts began to include the use of forced and coerced medical procedures such as sex organ altering surgeries and gonad removal on intersex children in order to suppress or alter their intersex status. The American Intersex Movement was started by a group of hermaphrodites, including our ED Hida Viloria, in order to end this practice.
Some intersex community members later shared that they found “hermaphrodite” stigmatizing, either because it was in use when discriminatory attitudes were stronger or because their bodies look binary and they do not like the non-binary associations of the term. However, unlike like the word “queer,” for example, “hermaphrodite” was not/is not a slur, just an older community label, and it’s use was never discontinued by many intersex community members.
We note that people should always ask those born with variations of sex characterisitcs which term they prefer to use to describe themselves, and use it accordingly.
Intersex people are defined by our biology, rather than gender identity, as intersex people experience the same range of gender identities as non-intersex people. We note, however, that similarly to many typical males and females, some intersex people have discussed that “intersex” describes their gender identity as well as their natal sex characteristics. We also note that in the case of some intersex people, the terms “male” and “female” have been used, legally, medically, and culturally, to refer not to internal biology but rather the individuals’ visual appearance as male or female at birth.