What Is ‘Intersex’ Anyways?

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By Gabriel Bell | 3:27 pm, January 6, 2017

You may be “intersex” and not even know it.

As you (hopefully) know, most humans are born male or female. With either of those two sexes, you get a certain set of reproductive parts on top of hundreds of other sex-specific traits, ranging from genetic structure to hormone levels to internal duct systems. Bones are different male to female. Circulatory systems are different male to female. You get the picture.

An estimated 98% of all people born have bodies that completely conform to one of these two sets of traits. The remaining two percent—accounting for about 1 to 2 in every 1,000 births depending on which researcher you ask— are “intersex,” which means they have male and female traits.

You’ll be familiar with what intersex can look like thanks to the identification’s most famous example, hermaphroditism: the condition of being born with both sexual organs, ambiguous genitals, or a mix thereof. No one’s used that term since the mid- 20th century, but there was a time when many ancient cultures—Greek, Indian, Native American, among others—celebrated the births of such people as auspicious events.

Throughout the early-to-late 20th century, doctors treated those kinds of intersex people at birth, using surgery to assign them one of the two most common sexes. A doctor might see, say, a structurally unusual penis at birth that had elements of a vagina, remove it, fashion something resembling female genitals, declare the child a “girl,” give the parents some hormone pills, and declare their work done. Obviously, it was a superficial solution, as much of the patient’s body would still be male.

That practice is currently changing, however, in part because some people see those kinds of surgeries as barbaric, and in part because some people no longer see being born intersex as a problem to be “solved.”

But also, our scientific understanding of who is and isn’t intersex now goes far beyond structural matters of genitalia. While the vast majority of people who are classified as intersex were born with genitals that don’t quite fit into the male/female dichotomy, a small minority may instead possess other, sometimes very subtle intersex traits.

That is, what’s expressed in your body and what your genes hold may be very different. A newborn may appear to have certain male features (bone structure, genitals, etc.) at first blush, but possess other female traits (hormone levels, fat distribution, voice, skin, internal organs, etc.) that don’t surface until after infancy. Indeed, one may be entirely one sex in appearance and structure, and yet possess the sex chromosomes of the other.

Even you could be intersex and only know it via a genetic test. Granted, these non-manifesting examples of intersexuality comprise a very small minority of that population, but it has been known to happen.

Reactions to growing up intersex vary wildly from person to person. A person may be born intersex— with ambiguous genitalia, for example—and, due to post-birth surgery or choice, express himself as either male or female and simply not address their intersexuality.

Another person may also turn against their post-birth sexual assignment—say, if they had the penis removal surgery—and announce themselves as, say, an “intersex man.” A person could also just completely identify with his/her biological intersexuality and reject the ideas of “male” or “female.” Other terms used by intersex people include “intergender,” or “X-gender.” Any of these would fall under the huge umbrella of identities that is “transgender.”

As to why the term “intersex” is now cropping up in lists of newly emerging gender identities and appearing in the news more—it’s mainly that the small population of people born intersex are no longer hiding it.