All for One and One for All: Ending Interphobia

by Hida Viloria.

Intersexphobia, or “Interphobia” — as coined in a fantastic 2010 blog post by openly intersex and trans* Professor Cary Gabriel Costello, PhD — encompasses negative attitudes and feelings towards people who are born with, or develop in puberty, sex traits that are not typically male or female, known as Intersex Traits. Interphobia is evidenced in widespead violence and severe discrimination against intersex people, such the practice of Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM).

IGM is the medicalized effort to eradicate intersex people from society by “normalizing” intersex bodies into more typically male or female bodies in order to maintain sex and gender norms. As an excellent ” target=”_blank”>Harvard Law Review article examines, medical “treatment” of intersex people with IGM not only utilizes some of the same nonconsensual, medically unnecessary, cosmetic genital surgeries used in Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), it is also, like FGM, a culturally driven practice which is performed in order to uphold cultural attitudes and beliefs about sex and gender, rather than for medical reasons. Simply out, all effort to “fix” intersex bodies to fit into male and female sex and gender “norms” are inherently interphobic and violently discriminatory.

I like “Interphobia” for two reasons:
1. It’s easier and more consistent, linguistically, than “Intersexphobia”, and;
2. “Intersex” refers specifically to biological sex traits, but Intersex People aren’t the only victims of prejudice towards non-binary bodies and/or people with gender expressions associated with them. as the setting of a 16 y.o. agender boy on fire as he slept on a bus, while waring a skirt, in liberal Berkeley, California demonstrates.

Simply being perceived as not being “a real man” or “real woman” — as Intersex People have long been and continue to be, if known to be Intersex — is enough to elicit interphobic responses such as negative attitudes and/or behavior, bullying, and even violence. This in turns limits all people in fully expressing their gender and/or gender identity.

Today, it is mainly people with non-binary gender identities and/or expression who are the common targets, along with Intersex People, of Interphobia. However, as historians, anthropologists, sociologists and others have documented, numerous 14th-16h century accounts from England, France, Spain and more reveal that people today known as gays and lesbians were once labelled with terms associated with intersex people, known then by our older label, “hermaphrodites”. Examples of these associations include the term “Tribade” (circa 1595, Greece), which referred to a woman believed to be capable of having penetrative sex with another woman, accusations of which made the accused subject to ridicule or punishment (Bonnie Zimmerman (2000). Lesbian histories and cultures: an encyclopedia (Volume 1).Taylor & Francis. pp. 776–777. ISBN 0-8153-1920-7. Retrieved February 29, 2012.). Today, “tribade” remains defined in the Oxford Dictionary as, “A lesbian, especially one who lies on top of her partner and simulates the movements of the male in heterosexual intercourse.” Also, from the 1850’s through the mid 20th century, members of what we would today call the early “gay men’s” civil rights movements in England and Germany commonly used the term “Third sex”, which has obvious hermaphrodite/intersex associations, to describe themselves ( Kennedy, Hubert (1981). “The “Third Sex” Theory of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs”. Journal of Homosexuality 6 (1–2): 103–111. doi:10.1300/J082v06n01_10. PMID 7042820. ^ Hirschfeld, Magnus, 1904. Berlins Drittes Geschlecht (“Berlin’s Third Sex”), ^ Ellis, Havelock and Symonds, J. A., 1897. Sexual Inversion. ^ Carpenter, Edward, 1908. The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women.) Interphobia has thus harmed/harms all members of the LGBTQIA community.

Interphobia also continues to advance discriminatory practices against intersex adults, as well as minors and youth, such as regulations against intersex female athletes in competitive sport which require them to undergo medically unnecessary, “feminizing” medical treatments, such as hormone therapy, in order to compete as women. The fact that these regulations persist — despite well publicized findings that even the sporting bodies’ own medical experts have been unable to find evidence that high levels of functioning testosterone give intersex women a competitive advantage — is based purely on interphobic attitudes which have historically deemed intersex people as “gender interlopers”, or, essentially, criminals, in need of punishment.

In order to end Interphobia and all its pursuant harms, we must confront any and all efforts to deem Intersex People, and those whose appearance is associated with being Intersex, as inferior. Such efforts are inherently Interphobic, as are attempts to promote the unsubstantiated claim that the majority of Intersex people identify as males or females, when there is in fact evidence to the contrary. Promoting gender normative stereotypes seeks to seeks to minimize stigma and discrimination against intersex people by obfuscating non-binary Intersex People’s existence, as if we are something to be ashamed of. While we all prefer to avoid prejudice as much as possible, when we do it on the backs of others, by placing them below us in the sociocultural pecking order, we are simply promoting the same prejudice by an another means. Thus we urge you to acknowledge and include all people, including those of us who have non-binary gender identities and/or bodies, in your conversations and discourse about sex and gender.:) Thank you!

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Essays on examining sports regulations for intersex women athletes are available for those inerested in learning more at the links below:,

1 Comment

  1. Jim Costich on April 4, 2015 at 11:39 am

    Divide and conquer. I’ve maintained for 40 years that the mutilation and forced sex assignments of Intersex people are the ultimate – the summarizing persecution of all sex and sexual minorities who don’t fit socially mandated definitions of female/male. The efforts of 1950’s suppression and repression of anyone not heterosexual, male & masculine OR heterosexual, female, feminine hits a zenith in the obliteration of Intersex people in the 1960’s and into today. During the early 2000’s I was told by an official in the Albany dept. of records that he didn’t care if I got a court order to change the name & gender marker on my birth certificate, he didn’t have to obey it because there was no law governing birth record changes – just departmental procedure. He argued that a judge has no power over that. If I couldn’t prove that I was a transsexual who had sex reassignment surgery backed up by medical permission he wouldn’t do it. Yes, he had heard of Intersex people but he didn’t believe it, had no department procedure to deal with it (the reason he didn’t believe it) and didn’t care what my doctors said because clearly I had bribed them. When I asked him why he wanted to keep me from getting a passport to cross the Canadian border and asked him how he thought that all my other life records matched the sex I was raised he babbled hate. Many Intersex people are recorded as the “wrong” sex at birth – indeed, one can make an easy argument that we all are because intersex IS our sex and when we are declared male OR female when we are male AND female it’s always wrong. Because of this fact it can take many years to settle into the closest sex fit to who/what we are. States often allow no more than 48 hrs. to complete a birth certificate and after the advent of policing transsexuals the intersexed who didn’t have surgery forced on them, (like me) found ourselves in legal limbo. In “Intersexuality and the Law, why sex matters” by Julie A. Greenberg she presents a case where an intersex man’s marriage was annulled because “being neither male nor female” he had no right to marry at all. These things are fast being rectified by the LGBT Civil Rights movement. Perhaps the most ironic part of it is that many if not most of the challenges to our most basic rights – life, liberty and pursuit of happiness will be solved by other sex minorities before any appreciable number of Intersex people themselves come out of hiding,