By Jim Costich
September 22, 2019
It is not appropriate to use the term “intersex” to describe a gender identity. Intersex refers to a person’s sexual anatomy, hormones or chromosomes. The most important thing to remember about the definition of the term is that it describes a person’s body, not their identity.
Intersex people are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies.
Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all.
According to experts, between 0.05% and 1.7% of the population is born with intersex traits – the upper estimate is similar to the number of red-haired people.
Being intersex relates to biological sex characteristics and is distinct from a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. An intersex person may be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or asexual, and may identify as female, male, both or neither.
While it is true that the experience of living in our bodies helps us form our identities, we must keep our terms clear and specific or else we can’t understand what others are talking about. This is especially important for intersex people because knowledge of our existence was almost wiped out during the 20th century. We were erased from common understanding and speech.
If you don’t have a physical intersex trait please don’t use the term, “intersex” to describe your body and certainly don’t use it to describe your identity. There are wonderful terms available already for describing an identity that’s between man or woman, or that’s neither; Intergender, Altersex, Nonconforming Gender, NonBinaryGender, Gender Queer, Gender Fluid, Two-Spirit, Transexual, and Transgender, just to name a few.
While having so many terms exploding into use may seem chaotic right now it’s just because being able to use any describer that is not just the, “One size fits none” of masculine man OR feminine woman is helping people to actualize themselves. I’ve no doubt all will quiet down and become easier in the future. No matter what your sex, there are many ways to describe gender identity and gender expression. An intersex person, like a male or female person, can have any of these identities and fit in with others like them. Some people’s gender and sex align. For instance, some people are male/masculine/man, female/feminine/woman or intersex/androgynous/intergender but many of us don’t align. That’s why it is so important for everyone to be able to describe themselves and why so much confusion happens when we say things like, “I identify as male.” A male has an identity. Male is not an identity.
Because intersex children are still being surgically altered without their knowledge and their parents rushed, coerced and misinformed about the possible risks and outcomes of cosmetic genital surgery we must be vigilant to keep misuse of terms surrounding intersex at a minimum. Children are harmed daily. This is what we want to prevent and only by removing confusion and doubt can that happen. Intersex traits can and do cause health care problems and complications ordinary people do not face and because the emphasis was on our erasure instead of providing our health care needs our physicians often face a dearth of information needed to help us. This presents a challenge for all intersex people, our families, and physicians that makes it important that the public comes to understand that intersex is about the human body and its variations. If you don’t have an intersex trait, do not use the term for yourself and always use it with knowledge and understanding. Talking about identity is important. So is talking about it accurately and in a way that doesn’t take the focus off the health needs and abuses of intersex people. Thank you in advance for being the best ally you can be.