The 101 of Intersex (Something You Really Should Know About)

Here’s a short overview of why intersex individuals are demanding recognition and small everyday changes that can make a real difference. Thanks to today's guest writer, MeerderWörter.

Many social issues such as climate change or food insecurity are well-known, but so many issues aren’t featured in mainstream media. As the world wakes up and sees injustices that have previously been hidden, there are many groups (rightly) standing up and demanding long over-due recognition.

As we aim to build a more inclusive and collaborative world, finding ways to include everyone is so important. Giving everyone an equal platform to share their story is a good place to start. For more on why stories matters, see Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful TED talk - The Dangers Of A Single Story.

Have you ever met an intersex person?

Most likely you have. Numbers suggest that up to 1 in 200 individuals are intersex, depending on the definition.

You might wonder if there is anyone famous?

Well, there are:

Caster Semenya won the 800m World Championship

Dutee Chand is  an athlete competing on the world stage

Herculine Barbin, probably the most famous. They lived in France in the 19th century and their birthday, November 8th, has become a celebration-  Intersex Solidarity Day.

So, some people you’ve probably heard of.

So, what does being intersex mean?

It's possibly a term most of you have may not have come across yet. So let’s start with a few definitions to get everyone on the same page and so everyone knows what’s being discussed. Everyone starts from the same bare minimum.

Can you remember sex-ed in school again? You remember the talk about how XX and XY are male and female, respectively, right? If not, or if you have never heard any of this before, that’s OK.

Intersex refers to one’s sex characteristics. Chromosomes and hormone levels are sex characteristics, but genitals, inner sex organs (those are primary sex characteristics), and breast development and body hair distribution (those are secondary sex characteristics) are as well. Now, when you are intersex, either one or more than one of those cannot be easily classified as either male or female. Thus “intersex” – “between the sexes”.

4 important things to know

Being intersex can be “discovered” at any stage of life

Be that birth, childhood, puberty, or later in life, then normally when you have issues with fertility.

What is important to keep in mind is that this is not to be confused with being transgender, where the sex characteristics do align with either the male or female sex, but transgender individuals do not identify with the gender they were assigned to at birth.

Medical terminology matters and can be deeply offensive:

“Intersex” is not a medical term in use anymore. It’s an umbrella term that groups together a number of variations of sex characteristics. Variations of sex characteristics is a good synonym as it is descriptive and neutral. Having descriptive and neutral terminology is important because historically this hasn’t been the case. The current official medical term, DSD – Disorders (or Differences) of Sex Development, is felt by many to be pathologizing and patronizing term and is rejected by most intersex individuals.

Human Rights of intersex individuals are threatened on a daily basis.  Something as simple as filling in a form can be problematic. Right now, only Australia, California, and Germany have a 3rd gender marker, and in Austria, the Constitutional Court has ordered a revision of the gender marker law. This is not to say that all intersex folks want a 3rd gender marker for themselves, but it will make them visible. It will give those who do not identify as either male or female, the possibility to see their gender identity acknowledged.

Many countries force the body of an intersex individual to comply as best as possible to society’s standards of male and female. When it comes to doctors, it is still common practice to use the scalpel first, and then ask. Malta is the only country in the world that has explicitly outlawed what activists call Intersex Genital Mutilation and other similar treatments. For example, forcing individuals to take estrogen or testosterone or to undergo gonadectomies (that is the removal of ovaries, testes or ovotestes).

It is difficult to write about the Human Rights of intersex individuals, as those are mistreated on a daily basis, as well as the fact that in law, apart from Malta, and the few other countries that have now a 3rd gender marker, intersex people simply do not exist in law.

It is not the same as trans*

There are similarities and differences to the trans* community. Put simply, trans activists fight for the surgeries that they do want, while intersex individuals fight against the surgeries that they don’t want. And here is the common ground – self-determination on the grounds of Human rights. In the end, what we both, intersex and trans* individuals, want, is free and fully informed consent and enough time to think about options. Free and fully informed consent – that the procedure is explained, its outcomes, the positive and the negative ones, possible alternatives, their positive and negative outcomes as well as what happens when nothing is being undertaken. So, there are similarities, but there are differences too.

What’s the best way forward?

Here are some simple asks that could make a big difference.

1) Educate yourself

Reading this article is a great place to start (thanks so much), and there’s plenty more literature available. Start with the OII Europe toolkit for allies, published in different European languages for a more in-depth read on the situation of intersex people in Europe.

2) Mind your language

Be aware of what language you use and when.

  • For newborn children, don’t let the first question be: “Is it a boy or a girl?” Instead, ask if the baby is alright and healthy.
  • When mentioning menstruation, don’t make it a gendered thing about only women getting periods – women may and may not have periods.

3) Discover the intersex organisations in your region

There are many great intersex organisations out there all over Europe. When you genuinely ask how you can best support them,  you will be welcome. If you see that there are demands regarding the rights of intersex people, go to your next best representative, and ask them to stand for the rights of intersex people.

In the end, what it comes down to, when you offer your support and when you challenge the binary notions of male and female, is the focus on your language- Include us intersex people. Making us visible is the first best step to solve the problem.

Read more:

Thanks to MeerderWörter for this insightful piece. Follow @MeerderWorter on Twitter for more updates!

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