Day 9 of Pride: What is Intersex?

Intersex is the ‘I’ in LGBTQIA. Historically, intersex conditions were referred to as ‘hermaphroditism,’ after the mythological child of Hermes and Aphrodite who was born with two sets of functional genitalia. This is a misnomer, comparing Hermaphroditos and those with intersex conditions. Being born with two fully functional sets of genitals is incredibly rare. This fact adds to the common misconception that intersex conditions are also incredibly rare. This is untrue.

One of the ways in which our society attempts to reinforce the gender binary is by relying extremely heavily on the bio-social construct of dyadic biological sex. Biological sex, contrary to popular belief, is not a black-and-white, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt matter of XX and XY as we have long been taught. Biological sex is inherently ambiguous, the two-sex paradigm having been created by the medical establishment as a way of simplifying care for the two most prevalent groups.

Designation into one of the two prevalent dyadic sex groups relies on five distinct factors: chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics, hormones, internal gonads, and external genitalia. I’ll explain each in commonly understood dyadic terms before describing how intersex conditions can manifest.

Chromosomes refers to the forty-sixth base pair of chromosomes. The female-classified chromosomal pattern is XX. The male-classified is XY. Secondary sex characteristics are those features that come to mind when thinking of puberty. For the female-assigned person, these things will include the growth of pubic hair, widening of hips, a higher pitched voice, and breasts. For a male-assigned person, secondary sex characteristics include the growth of hair all over the body, the growth of facial hair, broadening of the shoulders and jaw, a deeper voice, and accelerated muscle development. Hormones refers to the level of estrogen/progesterone and testosterone in the body. The female-assigned person will have more estrogen, the male-assigned will have more testosterone. Internal gonads refer to those reproductive organs that exist inside the body. For female-assignment, these include the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. For male-assigned, these include testes and prostate. External genitalia is pretty simple: penises and vaginas.

In order to conform to one of the two dyadic sexes, all five of these factors must be in alignment. In one out of every two thousand people, they aren’t. One out of every two thousand people is born intersex. The deviation from the dyadic sex can occur on any of the five levels. Many born intersex never know of their condition.

At the chromosomal level, some intersex conditions are overt. XXY, XXX, and X are all other variations of the forty-sixth pair, which result in varying physical manifestations. However, X does not always produce estrogen and vaginas, nor does Y produce penises. Those with four out of five factors lining up for a female-designation can be born with XY chromosomes. The same is true of XX. Hormones, external sex organs, and internal reproductive organs can come in many variations as well.

Until the last few years, OB/GYN doctors were allowed to perform medical procedures upon newborn infants without parental consent. The medical establishment’s dedication to the proposition of a two-sex species borne a set of guidelines about the external genitals of infants. If an organ was below a set measurement, the organ was classified a clitoris and the infant a girl. If the organ was above a different measurement, the organ was classified a penis and the infant a boy. There was a fairly significant margin between the two—I am avoiding any specific measurements as they did/do vary by location. Those with “ambiguous” genitalia that fell in between the two sets of measurements were at the hands of their doctors. On the shorter end of the gap, the organ was filed down into correct clitoral parameters. If on the longer end, it was classified a penis.

Intersex individuals are not trans. These two existences are not synonymous. Intersex individuals face a series of life challenges that are unique to them. Their struggles have gone on unnoticed for far too long, and it’s time that we welcome them more warmly into the fold and fight alongside them.

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