Even with transgender issues in the news almost daily, and various dialogues in science, culture, and government going on to determine how we can best think about gender, the subject of intersex isn’t brought up very often.
But it should be.
Sarah Hendrica Bickerton recently wrote a coming-out story where she reveals that she is intersex, and brings some lived experience and ideas to the table.
What is it? Simply put, it’s when a person is born gender ambiguous or with characteristics of both sexes.
This means that doctors may be uncertain from examining a baby’s genitalia whether that person is a boy or girl. It might mean that the child presents both male and female genitalia, hormones, or chromosomes.
There is a word for “intersex” that we are all familiar with: “hermaphrodite.” When a person is born with a penis and a vagina this is the word we used. It was considered as something mythological—hence the classical myth characters of Hermes and Aphrodite in the name—that occurred rarely in humans.
It isn’t that rare at all. As Sarah shares her story, we learn that two percent of people may be intersex.
There are different identification, identity, medical and rights issues affecting intersex people.
Traditionally, doctors would “choose” the more dominant appearing sex, and parents would raise their child as that sex. This sometimes meant surgery to remove “extra” or “unnecessary” body parts. Sometimes this choice worked out but in many cases, as the child approached puberty, they would become very confused as they began presenting opposing sex characteristics.
For example, a child born with a vagina might have their penis removed, and be raised as a girl. Come puberty, the child may develop facial hair and male characteristics, not breasts, and never menstruated. He has no womb, but now no penis either.
Intersex advocates furiously oppose surgeries until adulthood, by choice of the person. Body autonomy and integrity are essential human rights and they see surgery as violent and forced. Many fight to proclaim that they are not male or female but both, and should be left in tact to express that fact.
Are intersex folks like Sarah transgender? Does the mystery of transgender lie in intersex? For example, a person assigned as male at birth may appear male throughout her life but identify as female the whole time. Might this be because she actually has unseen ovaries and female chromosomes inside her?
Many cultures have always instinctively understood a “third” category of gender, that was not male or female but a third gender. Transgender and intersex folks would be considered as third gender, which wasn’t one definition but a catch all for other expressions.
While intersex science might shed a lot of light on gender mysteries and transgender questions, and intersex and transgender folks might seem natural allies, they are unfortunately sometimes at odds with one another. This is because the rights transgender people fight for include surgical intervention which many intersex folks see as mutilation of your natural state.
Some intersex women like Sarah also feel that they were never biologically male—they were sometimes mixed, and sometimes one sex with some “extra” parts or hormones, depending on the individual. They are not switching or “trans” gender.
Not everyone is infighting however. Many folks who are transgender, cisgender, intergender, nonbinary, doctors, scientists, philosophers, and human rights activists are simply open to learning more and sharing their own experiences to make our pool of knowledge greater.
It’s a fascinating subject, and I have great hope that we will all stand together in agreement, disagreement, and the spirit of learning.