What does intersex mean?
A variety of health conditions, often present at birth, involving anatomy and physiology that differs from societal expectations of male and female. Intersex conditions can affect the genitals, the chromosomes and/ or other body structures. Though we speak of intersex as an inborn condition, intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until they reach the age of puberty, or finds themselves an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with an intersex condition without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.
Many people born with a visibly intersex condition are mutilated in infancy and early childhood by doctors to make the individual’s sex characteristics conform to society’s idea of what normal bodies should look like. Intersex conditions are relatively common, although society’s denial of their existence has marginalized people with intersex conditions.
Note: People with intersex conditions should NOT be assumed to be transgender.
How common is intersex?
This isn’t so easy to answer. First, everyone has to agree on what counts as intersex, and also agree on what should count as strictly male or strictly female. That’s hard to do!
If you ask experts at medical centers how often a child is born so noticeably atypical in terms of genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in, the number comes out to about 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births. But a lot more people than that are born with subtler forms of intersex conditions, some of which won’t show up until later in life, if at all.
How can a gender be assigned?
When you assign a child a gender as boy or girl, what you’re doing is labeling someone as a boy or girl. That’s it! You don’t need medical intervention or surgery for that….But how do you assign a baby’s gender if they have an intersex condition?
The child is sometimes assigned a gender after tests (hormonal, genetic, radiological) have been done and the parents have consulted with the doctors on which gender the child is more likely to feel as she or he grows up.
Any child—intersex or not—may decide later in life that she or he was given the wrong gender assignment; but children with certain intersex conditions have significantly higher rates of gender transition than the general population.
Medically unnecessary surgeries should not be done without the patient’s consent; the child with an intersex condition may later want genitals (either the ones they were born with or surgically constructed anatomy) different than what the doctors chose. Surgically constructed genitals are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to “undo”. Children altered at birth or in infancy are largely stuck with what doctors give them (and can be traumatized with that reality).