It’s International Intersex Awareness Day tomorrow, so it’s time to talk about what being intersex is like.

‘Intersex’ is an umbrella term, meaning that it can be used for a variety of different situations, wherein a person’s sexual anatomy and chromosomes don’t fit within the typical definition of male or female.

This may sound similar to being transgender, however the difference is that being trans means you don’t identify with your biological sex, concerning your gender identity. Whereas being intersex relates to biological characteristics alone. Some examples of conditions that fall under the intersex category are:

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia, when too many hormones in the adrenal gland lead to biologically female infants’ genitals becoming more masculine.

5-alpha-reductase deficiency, in which abnormally low levels of the enzyme ‘5-alpha-reductase’ leads to the genitals in biologically male infants being unable to form completely.

Turner syndrome, when biologically female infants are born with one X chromosome (rather than the usual two), which leads to abnormalities during development.

Klinefelter syndrome, when biologically male infants are born with an extra X chromosome, leading to abnormalities and incomplete masculinisation.

So how many people does this effect? The proportion of intersex people within the population is approximately 1 in 2000 births in New Zealand. Being intersex is separate from gender identity or sexual orientation, as it relates to the biological characteristics of sex.

That means a person who is intersex may identify with any particular sexual orientation or gender identity; for example an intersex person may identify as female and asexual, or any number of combinations. While some conditions are apparent from birth, others may not be and conditions may begin to appear during puberty.

For many children who are born visibly intersex, surgery in order to change their anatomy to be closer to the gender the doctors determine fits best is a common reality. While in some cases this can work out just fine, there have been occasions in which individuals have had the corrective surgery shortly after being born, and then grown up feeling as though they don’t identify with the gender they have been raised as, or found that there were abnormalities in the development expected of that gender.

For that reason, many people are now supporting the idea that surgery for intersex conditions is unnecessary and it’s a better idea to wait to see what the individual in question chooses when they are old enough to make this decision. Many intersex individuals don’t feel the need to get surgery at all, and are perfectly happy with their bodies. This is also starting to be backed up by legislation in countries such as Chile and Malta.

Much like the other factions in the LGBTIQ community, people who are intersex face discrimination. If they are out, or it becomes known that they are intersex, or if they don’t seem to conform to binary gender norms, they can be subjected to abuse from others.

This is also reflected by statistics. The Australian study Intersex: Stories and Statistics from Australia by Tiffany Jones et al., discovered that intersex people in Australia show statistically high levels of poverty, as well as high levels of early school leaving and higher rates of disability than average.

With all this in mind, what’s the best way to support someone who is intersex? For those who are wanting to support a friend or family member, it’s important to bear a few things in mind:

  • Don’t ask intrusive questions. If this is a situation where you aren’t aware of all the details concerning this person’s anatomy, don’t ask lots of personal questions unless they’ve indicated it’s okay to do so. It could be taken as rude or make the person feel uncomfortable, however good your intentions may be.
  • Don’t ‘out’ this person. If they don’t want anyone else to know they’re intersex, you should respect that.
  • Do read up on what it means to be intersex to better educate yourself on some of the issues your friend may face in terms of discrimination.
  • Make sure you let this person know that you’re there for them, they aren’t alone, and this has no impact on your relationship with them.
  • Offer to take them to a support group or hook them up with resources from organisations such as ITANZ (Intersex Awareness New Zealand).

American organisation InterAct Youth have created a video on what it’s like to be intersex:

For more information check out these resources:

Intersex Awareness New Zealand

This post was brought to you in association with…

Rainbow Youth logo