Intersexuality in America

What Is Intersex?

Many people have probably never heard of the term intersex. It is not a well-known condition. It is estimated that about 1.7% of the population is intersex. This statistic might make it sound pretty rare, but a person is as likely to be born intersex as they are to be born with red hair.

So, what does intersex mean? It is sort of a catch-all term for a diverse set of conditions where a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit into the standard male/female categories. While intersex people are born with these conditions, they may not be obvious from birth. Someone who is intersex may not discover it until later in life.

Generally speaking, intersex is divided into four categories:

  • 46, XX Intersex – genetically and internally female, but externally appears male; a person with this condition has two X chromosomes and ovaries, but external genitalia does not appear female
  • 46, XY Intersex – genetically male, but external genitalia is underdeveloped, appears female or is ambiguous
  • True Gonadal Intersex – a person with this condition has ovaries and testicles.
  • Complex or Undetermined Intersex – a catch-all diagnosis for conditions that fall out of 46, XX or 46, YY chromosome makeup; this could include people who only have one X chromosome or people who have XXY or XXX chromosomes

What Is an Intersex Person?

Someone who is intersex is born outside of the typical male/female sex. This could be shown in that person’s genotype (genetics) or phenotype (appearance). A person’s hormones could also indicate whether or not they are intersex. For example, an intersex person might be someone who has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. This occurs when a person’s genetics are male, but their bodies either can’t use certain or all male hormones. This causes them to externally appear female or androgynous.

That being said, it is important to remember that sex and gender are two different things. Gender is typically seen as what someone identifies as, not what they were born with. An intersex person could identify themselves as male, female, trans, intersex, etc. The same thing is true for sexuality. An intersex person might identify as gay, straight, pansexual, bisexual, etc.

How Common Are Intersex Conditions?

Generally speaking, intersex conditions are about as rare as having red hair. Estimates suggest that 1.7% of the population is intersex. It is also estimated that about 1 in every 2,000 births will exhibit an intersex trait. However, intersex is a general term for many different types of cases, so the individual conditions might be more or less likely.  For example, Klinefelter Syndrome, where someone is born with XXY chromosomes, occurs in 1 out of 1,000 births. Whereas Complete Gonadal Dysgenesis occurs in 1 out of 150,000 births. So some intersex conditions are much rarer than others.

How Do I Know If I Have an Intersex Condition?

Sometimes a doctor will know someone is intersex as soon as they are born. However, it may be that a person does not discover they are intersex until later on in life. Here are some signs that you might have an intersex condition:

  • Genetically you are one sex, but external reproductive organs appear to be the opposite sex or androgynous.
  • You were born with an extra sex chromosome, either 47, XXY or 47, XXX.
  • You were born with only one sex chromosome 45, XO
  • You may be genetically female, but have an enlarged clitoris
  • You may have a condition called “micropenis”; this is a condition where a person is genetically male but has very small external genitalia.
  • You may have an imbalance in male or female hormones.
  • Many babies who are born intersex undergo surgery, so you may have scars around your genitalia.

The best way to know if you have an intersex condition is to talk to your doctor. If you suspect you might be intersex and want to know for sure, it is a good idea to seek out medical advice.

Is Intersex Part of the Transgender Community?

The short answer is yes and no, depending on the person. People with intersex conditions are not the same as transgender and should not automatically be grouped into that community. Intersex is its own unique community and the people in that community have different needs than people who are transgender. However, an individual who is intersex might identify as transgender. Intersex people can have any sexual identification. Grouping intersex with transgender is dangerous because it causes intersex people to become invisible and their needs and rights won’t be met.

Is Intersex the Same Thing as a Hermaphrodite?

No, intersex people should not be confused with hermaphrodite people. The term hermaphrodite refers to someone who is completely male and completely female. It is a myth and considered to be a derogatory term. It would be similar to calling a lesbian a “dyke”.

Summary

Someone who is intersex is born with a condition that makes their reproductive and sexual organs different from what we typically think of as male/female. That being said, being intersex is a completely natural variation in sex. Sex is considered to be a spectrum and people who are intersex fall somewhere in the middle. It is important to remember that someone who is intersex can have any gender identity or sexual orientation. Because of this, intersex people should not just be lumped together with transgender people. It is also important to remember that intersex and hermaphrodite are not the same things. Calling an intersex person a hermaphrodite is offensive.

If you think that you have an intersex condition, you should talk to your doctor. There are also organizations out there that can provide you with support and advice.