October 26 2022 is Intersex Awareness Day. Find answers to some of the most common questions about intersex and why it’s so important to increase awareness of this little-known phenomenon.
What is Intersex?
The ‘I’ in LGBTQIA+ stands for intersex, a broad term meaning someone born with differing sex or hormonal characteristics. These differences can range from having chromosomes which differ from XX or XY usually associated with biological sex, to gonadal or genital differences.
There are over 40 medical terms relating to the specific differences an intersex person may have. Some intersex traits are apparent at birth, some become obvious at puberty, and some are never visible or even detectable.
The UK Intersex Association defines intersex people as “individuals whose anatomy or physiology differ from contemporary stereotypes of what constitutes typical male and female.”
How many people are born intersex?
This is a hard number to pin down because of the difficulties in detecting some intersex conditions as well as the ongoing stigma associated.
According to research conducted in 2000 by feminist and gender researcher Dr Anne Fausto-Sterling, 1.7% of people could be intersex, but there is no statutory requirement for this information to be tracked in Scotland or anywhere else. A smaller number (0.05% – 1 in 2000) of people are born with physical genital differences.
As many as 1.7% of people could be intersex.Dr Anne Fausto-Sterling
How does intersex differ from “disorder of sex development (DSD)” or being a “hermaphrodite”?
The word “hermaphrodite” is a slur and should never be used to describe an intersex person. While a small minority of intersex people have reclaimed the word, most will find it upsetting and harmful.
DSD is a medical term which is widely rejected by the intersex community due to the way they have been treated by the medical community. The majority of intersex people do not consider their traits to be akin to a disorder and do not want to be medicalised.
Why is Intersex Awareness Day so important?
Aside from the inherent value of being aware of the diversity of the human world, there are several key reasons why raising awareness of intersex is so important.
Intersex babies are frequently subjected to unnecessary cosmetic surgeries before the age of 2 years old, based on the choices of their parents, thus denying them the chance to understand their bodies and to provide informed consent to the surgery.
Intersex surgeries are not undertaken to improve the health of the baby, but to alter their external sex organs to match society’s expectations. These surgeries can have serious physical and psychological implications for the intersex person, including infertility, emotional well-being, and chronic pain.
In the UK there are currently insufficient protections in place and parents are often told that surgery is important, when waiting to understand the needs and wants of the person is the ethical option.
The ongoing conversation about intersex people in sports and the ban of Caster Semenya from competing in the Olympics is currently based on several flawed decisions, including discriminating against some conditions which cause elevated testosterone in women but not others – the ruling implies that women with elevated levels of testosterone but with XX chromosomes are allowed to compete, while those with elevated testosterone and XY chromosomes caused by an intersex condition are not.
Requiring Semenya to undergo medical intervention to reduce her levels of testosterone but allowing others to retain natural advantages from mutations is unjust. This is a complex issue and awareness and education on the issues and the people involved is key to making fair and consistent decisions in the future.
Biological and chromosomal sex is often used as a weapon against trans people in the debate for equality and easier access to gender-affirming care. If people have a better understanding of the natural diversity of human chromosomes and sex characteristics, this argument would cease to hold water and could lead to increased understanding and destigmatisation of intersex people and gender-diverse people.
Intersex Awareness Day is October 26. To find support and advocacy of intersex people by intersex people, visit Interconnected UK at https://interconnecteduk.org/
Featured image credit: Wikipedia (Group photo for the Intersex Awareness day October 26 2018 at ILGA conference in Brussels)