The UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights describes Intersex people as being those born with one of several variations in sex characteristics that do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies. These variations affect chromosomes, gonads, hormones, or genitals. Some Intersex traits are not always visible at birth; some babies may be born with ambiguous genitals, while others may have ambiguous internal organs (testes and ovaries). Others will not become aware that they are Intersex unless they receive genetic testing, because it does not manifest in their phenotype.
Intersex people were previously referred to as hermaphrodites, congenital eunuchs, or were even called “congenitally” frigid. None of these names are medically appropriate and they all carried a stigma. In 2006, the medical community defined Intersex traits as being “disorders of sex development,” which has been controversial as its name implies something being wrong. Nothing is wrong. Intersex people are just born with bodies anatomically different than what we have typically defined as male or female.
Sadly, Intersex people have been discriminated against for thousands of years, and even in today’s more advanced world, Intersex people are quite often treated with fear or scorn. In some countries, if an Intersex person is identified as such while young, it’s not unheard of for infanticide to occur. Abandonment and stigmatization of families into whom the Intersex person is born is common, even in more industrialized countries like the United States.
Traditional medical protocol for treating Intersex individuals has largely centered on surgical and hormonal interventions in infancy and childhood as a means of enforcing an assigned gender identity to Intersex people. The medical community has operated on an assumption that unstable gender identity leads to trauma. However, research and personal narratives from Intersex individuals indicate that standard treatment of Intersex people within the medical community is instead correlated to trauma and the development of negative psychosocial outcomes.
Psychological research has recently begun to explore the issues Intersex people face and offers information key to treating these specific issues in a therapeutic environment. Today, more support exists for Intersex people. But, a lot of stigma and fear still surround them. However, Intersex people are standing up for themselves and demanding that they be treated with dignity and respect, just like any other person.
In 2011, Christiane Völling became the first Intersex person to successfully sue for damages for non-consensual surgical intervention. Too often, doctors have told the parents of Intersex people that it’s best to assign a gender identity to the child while they are young. The problem with this approach, though, is that children might be assigned one gender, but then grow up to feel like they’re actually the other gender. In April 2015, the country of Malta became the first country to outlaw non-consensual medical interventions to assign sexual identity.
In January of this year, Hanne Gaby Odiele, a 28-year-old Belgium supermodel, spoke out about her gender identity to Vogue. She said, “It was important for me to make this declaration now, based on where I am in my life. I want to live authentically as who I am and help to break down the stigma that Intersex persons face ― but also to use the profile that I’ve built through modeling to give back to those without a voice. I want to be there for people who are struggling, to tell them it’s OK,” she added. “It’s one part of you, but it’s not who you are.”
Click here to watch her interview, as replayed by The Huffington Post and read about Hanne’s decision to come out as Intersex.
While religion often denigrates anyone in the LGBTQI community, some religious scholars have at least acknowledged Intersex people, even if in a limited way. Hinduism refers to Intersex people as being hijra, while Judaism discusses Intersex people, calling them androginus. Islam still uses the outdated term of hermaphrodite, but does state that these people should be awarded the same rights as people who are not born with variants in their sexual anatomy. While religion might not be where it should with regard to supporting and protecting Intersex people, scholars of many religions are discussing what it means to be Intersex. Hopefully these discussions will advance into figuring out how to be welcoming to all Intersex people.
Society in general has not been at the forefront of supporting Intersex people. Many sports figures, such as Erik Schinegger and Caster Semenya, were either forced to give back their medals or were subjected to medical inspection before being allowed to continue with their sports careers. All countries still have a lot to learn about Intersex people and how to bring them into mainstream society versus denigrating them as something akin to a side show at the circus.
The entertainment world functions no better than the sports world. Intersex people do not regularly appear in books, movies, or TV. From 2014-2015, MTV aired a show called Faking It, which had an Intersex character named Lauren Cooper. Middlesex is a novel about an Intersex man and the Micah Grey series of books includes a main character that is Intersex. Two other books, That Inevitable Victorian Thing and None of the Above both tell about girls who find out that they are Intersex and how they deal with it and those around them.
While Intersex people still face a lot of misunderstanding and derision, they are our brothers and sisters and friends and co-workers, and they are a part of our human world. No one knows exactly how many Intersex people exist today, but scientists estimate that they might be about 1.7 percent of the world’s population. No matter the numbers, they are a part of our lives and demand our love and respect.
You can learn more about Intersex Youth by going to the Interact Advocates website. The Intersex Society of North America is another organization that works toward offering factual information regarding what it means to be Intersex, while also providing information about what we can all do to support our Intersex family.
Two days of the calendar are devoted to helping bring awareness about Intersex people to society at large. October 26th in Intersex Awareness Day and November 8th is the Intersex Day of Remembrance. Both days are internationally recognized and observed.
Intersex Awareness Day highlights human rights issues faced by Intersex people in North American. On October 26, 1966, Intersex activist showed up at an American Academy of Pediatrics event in Boston and peacefully demonstrated for their rights. Originally, the activists were not going to demonstrate, as two demonstrators, Morgan Holmes and Max Beck, were supposed to speak at the event. However, when they were met with hostility and were escorted out of the conference, a later demonstration occurred.
Intersex Day of Remembrance is also known as Intersex Solidarity Day. Like Intersex Awareness Day, Intersex Day of Remembrance occurs to show us all about the issues Intersex people face daily. The date for this event marks the birthday of Herculine Barbin, a French Intersex person whose memoirs were published some time after they were found.
Let’s work together to support Intersex people. Welcome them into our lives and let them know we are truly family.