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What does Intersex Mean? What Makes Someone Intersex?

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Intersex is a word that’s used for someone whose body doesn’t fit the medical definition of a male or female body. People who are intersex can have genes, hormones, or body parts that don’t fit into the male or female categories, or might overlap. There are a lot of ways people can be intersex. Many people don’t know for sure if they are or not! It’s common and healthy, and not something that needs to be “fixed.” It is just part of natural differences between people.

In the past, people sometimes used the word “hermaphrodite” instead of “intersex”. Today, most people find that word old-fashioned and offensive. Also know that it’s very rare for someone who’s intersex to have a penis and a vagina. You can’t tell if someone’s intersex or not just by looking at their body.

Intersex can be an identity, a medical label, or both. It can mean different things in different situations, or with different people. Someone who isn’t intersex can be called “perisex.”

Someone’s sex isn’t always one or the other

When we’re born, most of us are assigned a sex at birth, like male, intersex, or female. You can probably find your assigned sex on your birth certificate or other ID. A doctor will usually assign someone’s sex at birth by looking at primary sex characteristics. In Quebec, doctors are required to do this whenever a baby is born.

Primary sex characteristics are things like

  • genitals like penises and vaginas
  • chromosomes
  • hormones
  • internal sex organs like ovaries and testes

Later in life, there are also secondary sex characteristics like

  • breasts
  • facial hair
  • height
  • body type

A lot of people think that everyone has sex characteristics that are either all male or all female. But a lot of people have some of both, or ones that overlap. People might find out they’re intersex at birth, in puberty, later in life, or never.

What makes someone intersex?

People are intersex because of what are sometimes called intersex conditions. Some of these might be easy to recognize if you see them, but some of them aren’t! There are lots of different conditions like this.

These conditions can impact your genitals, hormones, chromosomes, or your internal sex organs like the uterus, fallopian tubes, prostate, and so on. Some impact all of these at once! Conditions like these aren’t as rare as many people think. You also can’t tell if someone has one just by looking.

Some intersex conditions include:

  • Persistent Mullerian Duct Syndrome
  • Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome
  • Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia
  • Anchoria
  • Hypospadias

If these sound like complex medical terms, that’s because they are! The ways people talk about these conditions can be confusing. What’s important to know is that it’s okay to have them, or any other condition that affects your sex assignment. Having one doesn’t make you “weird” or mean that there’s something “wrong” with your body. People can have long, happy and healthy lives with a lot of them.

What does it mean to be intersex?

Because there are so many ways to be intersex, there are lots of different ways it might affect a person’s life!

Sometimes, people who are intersex are discriminated against. For example, some doctors will try to surgically “fix” intersex children. This can be harmful and even traumatizing. Others might have doctors or parents judge them, or say their bodies are wrong or unhealthy when they’re not.

Other times, people who are intersex might not know until they’re adults. They might grow up thinking of themselves as “just” male or female. Some never even heard the word intersex until a pap smear or other medical exam!

Being intersex can sometimes mean that it’s harder for someone to get pregnant. Some intersex people can’t get pregnant. Others don’t have any trouble! The same goes for being able to get someone pregnant.

Some intersex conditions come with mild to moderate health risks. But many are perfectly healthy! If you’re intersex and you’re not sure what that means for your health, it can help to talk to a doctor who has worked with people with your condition before.

What’s the difference between intersex and transgender?

Someone who’s transgender has a gender that is different from the one they were assigned at birth. Trans people can be uncomfortable with their bodies, or how other people see their bodies.

Being trans is different from being intersex. Someone who’s intersex might identify as trans if they’re also a gender that wasn’t assigned to them at birth. But many intersex people are happy in the gender that doctors or their parents gave them. It depends on the person!

The ways that people experience sex and gender can be very personal. It’s best to avoid making assumptions about how someone feels about their gender or sex. It’s also not ok to assume how someone does or doesn’t identify as based on their medical histories or how their body looks to you.

Having different bodies is one of the things that makes people so special. People may have bodies that look similar to yours or different from it, and that’s okay. It’s okay if your own body doesn’t look like anyone else’s. What’s important is knowing what’s healthy for you, and what you want for your body. This is true no matter what your sex or gender are, or how you choose to express them!

More info:

  • Fact Sheet: Transgender, Transsexual and Intersex

    This article differentiates between transgender, transsexual, and intersex, It also provides tips on how to be supportive to the trans and intersex community.

  • What is Intersex?

    GoAskAlice’s article delineating the definition of intersex, the most common intersex condition, prevelance rates, and society’s definition of gender and how that might affect those who are intersex.