What happens when you’re born with mixed male and female genitalia, when a female and male side grow inside of your body from birth? It’s called “intersex.”
You may be familiar with the derogatory term, “hermaphrodite,” which is no longer a suggested term to use since it means that an individual has both organs at once, which isn’t scientifically true. Instead, “intersex” is when individuals have a “combination of ovaries and testes” because of the result of “ovarian and testicular tissue growing together in the same organ.” Furthermore, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which is when the body has too many or not enough sex steroids, which can cause the appearance of genitalia to differ. Androgen insensitivity syndrome is when people are born with XY chromosomes. In short, intersex is more complicated than simply being born with “both.”
The difference between being transgender and intersex is that the term “transgender” defines your gender identity, while “intersex” refers to your biological characteristics. In comparison to transgendered individuals seeking and fighting for surgery, intersex individuals are typically forced, as children, to have surgery without their consent.
For much of the public, the term “intersex” is a foreign term and the condition is largely unknown. Almost 2% of the world’s population is intersex. While this may seem like a diminutive amount, it’s the roughly the same percentage as people who are born with red hair. The intersex child may appear like a specific assigned gender but their genitals may not be fully formed. For example, NPR explains that they may have “partially descended testes and an unusually short vagina with no cervix.”
Sociology professor, Georgiann Davis wrote an article titled 5 Things I Wish You Knew About Intersex People, where she details how the public percieves the condition, the future of intersex youth, and the misconceptions of what it means to be intersex. She notes that having a penis or a vagina shouldn’t determine whether you are a “real” man or a “real” woman. She goes on to say that, “It would behoove all of us to escape these constraints of binary thinking that underline sex, gender, and sexuality. Genitalia are naturally variable and are not predictive of our gender or sexual identities, which are complex and fluid parts of who we are. There are many ways to accomplish your gender and sexual identities both with and without your genitals.”
Intersex activists are speaking out about their condition as well. In 2009, South African athlete, Caster Semenya was asked to submit a gender-verification test at the Olympics after her win in Berlin. This caused a great stir from bloggers and writers. Womanist Musings wrote, “Intersex bodies should not be treated as though they are a sickness that needs to be cured, nor should [Semenya] face social stigmatization for the narrow-mindedness of some.”
Last month, supermodel Hanne Gaby Odiele announced that she was intersex to end the stigma for intersex children. As a child, Odiele underwent 18 alignment surgeries which were painful and confusing for the Belgium model. She went on to say, “I’m speaking out because it’s time this mistreatment comes to an end. It caused me way too much pain.”
Parents of intersex children often feel pressure from doctors or the public to seek treatment and try to “cure” their child’s characteristics or appearance, which typically results in emotional, psychological, and physical pain. Odiele wasn’t even sure what the surgeries were for and her parents were told that she may end up with cancer if the procedure was not followed through. It wasn’t until she was 18, on an online forum, that she discovered the definition of intersex.
A Toronto Hospital social worker, Barbara Neilson, who works closely with intersex children advises parents to understand why they have anxiety over their non-binary child and why they feel the need to “fix” them. The future of understanding intersex lies with doctors, nurses, and the family involved. Neilson goes on to say that, “it’s not a secret, so there’s nothing shameful about having one of these conditions,” and helping the family understand this as well will help reduce unwanted surgeries for children all around the world.