Friday, June 13, 2008

Frequently Asked Questions About Intersex Activism

"What is intersex?

Technically, intersex is defined as "congenital anomaly of the reproductive and sexual system." Intersex people are born with external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, and/or endocrine system that are different from most other people. There is no single "intersex body"; it encompasses a wide variety of conditions that do not have anything in common except that they are deemed "abnormal" by the society. What makes intersex people similar is their experiences of medicalization, not biology. Intersex is not an identity. While some intersex people do reclaim it as part of their identity, it is not a freely chosen category of gender--it can only be reclaimed. Most intersex people identify as men or women, just like everybody else. Intersex conditions are also referred to as "disorders of sex development" (DSD) in some medical literature.

What do intersex activists want?

We are working to replace the current model of intersex treatment based on concealment with a patient-centered alternative. We are not saying that intersex babies are better off left alone; we want there to be social and psychological support for both the parents and intersex children so that they can deal with social difficulties resulting from being different than others. In the long-term, we hope to remove those social barriers through education and raising awareness. See Alice Dreger's chart contrasting the two paradigms.

Are intersex conditions harmful?

In general, intersex conditions do not cause the person to feel sick or in pain. However, some intersex conditions are associated with serious health issues, which need to be treated medically. Surgically "correcting" the appearance of intersex genitals will not change these underlying medical needs.

How common are intersex conditions?

No one knows exactly how many children are born with intersex conditions because of the secrecy and deception surrounding it, and also because there is no concrete boundaries to the definition of "intersex." It is nonetheless estimated that about one in 2,000 children, or five children per day in the United States, are born visibly intersex, prompting early intervention.

Can't they just do a test to find out babies' true sex?

Medicine cannot determine the baby's "true sex." For example, chromosomes do not necessarily dictate one's gender identity, as it is obvious from the fact that most people born with androgen insensitivity syndrome live as women despite their XY chromosomes. In other words: science can measure how large a clitoris is, but cannot conclude how large or small it needs to be. That is a social determination.

How do we know the correct gender of a child with an intersex condition?

We won't know the child's gender until she or he is old enough to communicate to us. It is recommended that the child be assigned a gender based on our best prediction, and allow her or him to determine for herself or himself once she or he is old enough to do so. Irreversible surgeries on infants should be avoided in order to give them the widest range of choices when they are older. Performing surgeries will not eliminate the possibility that our prediction is wrong.

What is the correct pronoun for intersex people?

Pronouns should not be based on the shape of one's genitalia, but on what the person prefers to be called. For children too young to communicate what her/his preference is, go with the gender assignment parents and doctor agreed on based on their best prediction. Do not call intersex children "it," because it is dehumanizing.

Are there five sexes?

The notion of "five sexes" was popularized by Anne Fausto-Sterling's article "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough" published in 1993. In this largely tongue-in-cheek piece, she wrote that three subcategories among "intersex" should be considered as three additional sexes aside from male and female. Unfortunately, the "five sexes" theory does not help people with intersex conditions. In addition to exoticizing and sensationalizing intersex people, the distinction between three additional "sexes"--merm, ferm and herm--are artificial and useless in improving the lives of intersex people. Fausto-Sterling later wrote in Sexing the Body (2000) that she was "no longer advocating" these categories, "even tongue in cheek."

Are intersex people "third gender"?

Many people with intersex conditions identify solidly as a man or as a woman, like many non-intersex people. There are some who identify as a member of an alternative gender, like some non-intersex people. While we support everyone's right to define her or his own identities, we do not believe that people with intersex conditions should be expected to be gender-transgressive just because of their condition.

Is intersex part of "transgender" community?

While some people with intersex conditions also identify as transgender, intersex people as a group have a unique set of needs and priorities beyond those shared with trans people. Too often, these unique needs are made invisible or secondary when "intersex" becomes a subcategory of "transgender." For example, people who discuss about intersex in the context of transgender often stress the risk of assigning a "wrong" gender as an argument against intersex genital mutilation, which overlooks the fact that intersex medical treatment is painful and traumatic whether or not one's gender identity happens to match her or his assigned gender. It is for this reason that we prefer to have "intersex" spelled out explicitly rather than have it "included" in "transgender" umbrella.

What is the difference between "hermaphrodite" and "intersex"?

In biology, "hermaphrodite" means an organism that has both "male" and "female" sets of reproductive organs (like snails and earthworms). In humans, there are no actual "hermaphrodites" in this sense, although doctors have called people with intersex conditions "hermaphrodites" because intersex bodies do not neatly conform to what doctors define as the "normal" male or female bodies. We find the word "hermaphrodite" misleading, mythologizing, and stigmatizing. Although some intersex activists do reclaim and use this term to describe themselves, it is not an appropriate term to refer to intersex people in general. In short, snails are the hermaphrodites; humans are not. Also, please avoid using the word "intersexual" as a noun; we prefer "intersex people" or "people with intersex conditions/experiences."

How can I help intersex movement?

Join us! In addition to volunteering for or making donations to intersex activist groups such as Intersex Initiative, you can help by talking to your friends and family members about the intersex movement. The idea is that the more people are aware about us, the less likely they will accept surgery as the only option when they or someone they know have an intersex baby. Get your community, church or school group together and show documentary films about intersex (available from Intersex Society of North America) or invite us to present.
Where can I read more about intersex movement?

Here are some of the recommended resources:


* "Intersex in the Age of Ethics" ed. by Alice Dreger
* "One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal" by Alice Dreger
* "Sexing the Body" by Anne Fausto-Sterling
* "Lessons from the Intersexed" by Suzanne Kessler
* "As Nature Made Him" by John Colapinto


* "Total Patient Care" (Intersex Society of North America)
* One in 2000 (Ajae Clearway)
* "Yellow for Hermaphrodite: Mani's Story" (Greenstone Pictures)
* "BOTH" (Solaris Films)
* "Is it a Boy or a Girl?" (Discovery Channel)"

Intersexual Resources:

Intersex Society of North America

Organization Intersex International

Intersex Initiative

Intersex Initiative

Intersex Community Forums

H/T to Temenos for the post.


CrackerLilo said...

I learned that a condition which causes intersexuality runs in my ex-boyfriend's family. His uncle and cousin are intersexed, and they told me lots. I got pregnant by him three times (and miscarried three times, too--another post). Because of this, I decided to learn all I could, just in case. We agreed very quickly that surgery wasn't an option, at least not until our hypothetical intersexed kid could make up hir own mind, and that sie would know what made hir different as soon as possible. This education is one of a few good things I got from him.

Anyway, thank you for publishing this post. The more is known about this, the less unnecessary suffering there might be in this world.

Nicky said...

I think you have it wrong. Intersex needs are far beyond the scope of the transgender and that intersex is not the same thing as a transgender

Queers United said...

Nick I don't really know what you are referencing. I have always posted about Intersex people as a separate category and have never lumped them in the transgender umbrella. Even in this entry it says that IS people should not be lumped under TG because it would not do justice to the issues that they face which are unique.

Nicky said...

That's good that your not lumping intersex under the transgender umbrella, but the problem remains is that their are other transgender out their who are and do lump intersex with transgender under their so called umbrella group. Their thinking that intersex issues to them is the same as transgender issues and they believe that intersex and transgender is the same thing. They think differently than what intersex advocates think and understand.

Queers United said...

Nick I understand your concern about being lumped into the trans umbrella. I do think transgender issues are distinct from intersex issues. I also do feel though that whether we are gay or straight, trans or intersex, asexual or sexual we should all be united because we are all sexual and gender minorities. Even though we have separate struggles and concerns we are all united in that we have similar hardships and society treats us unfairly. That is the purpose for my blog, I am not intersex or trans but you better believe I will be a strong ally to intersex & trans people, and I hope that even though you are not transgender you will be an ally to LGBTQIA people as well.

Nicky said...

See for me, as an Intersex person. I am all for gay, lesbian and bisexuals. The problem I have is with the transgender community,that they are trying to co-opt the intersex and claim to speak on behalf of the intersex. They claim to speak for the intersex and they claim that their issues are the same as theirs.

Their are some trans group who have put the intersex under their umbrella group and that's something I'm against. To them, they think that intersex is about gender, but it's more about the medical condition and not about the gender issues.

See, intersex issues are different because intersex are against forced SRS on intersex babies and kids. were for choice and are against medical secrecy and allowing intersex kids to make the choice when they are old enough to decide.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post (as always). I haven't met any intersex people (that I know of - as you stated, shame and secrecy are large problems), but when I do I'll know some of the etiquette. Any activism that breaks the gender binary is A-OK with me.

Have to say, though, when I get my inevitable cyborg upgrade, I'll be happy for people to call me an "it". Dehuman isn't too bad a label if you have shiny metal skin and have traded your remaining reproductive capacity for nipple lasers. I'm all about the dehumanisation, as long as dehumans still have the same derights.

Shauna said...

This is for Nick K.D Chaleunphone concerning the Intersex and transgender issues. I am so sorry you feel so strongly against the transgender community.

I am the board conseil for Illinois
and like it or not I am a transgender as well, I have lived my life between genders for 45 years and I decided I wanted to be the stronger gender. I ask you does my Intersex offend you? You have your beliefs and I have mine. No the transgender aren't like us I give you that but do not criticize them for being who they are because of a gender gene, we all have issues and we are all unique.

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