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All About the LGBTQ+ Acronym: What It Means to Be Intersex

Intersex refers to a person born with sexual anatomy or a reproductive organ that doesn’t fit traditional definitions of female or male.

For another installment in all about the LGBTQ+ acronym series, we discuss the “I” meaning “intersex.”

What Is Intersex?

Intersex is a term that describes various conditions. It refers to a person born with sexual anatomy or a reproductive organ that doesn’t fit traditional definitions of female or male. For instance, an intersex person may appear to be female but have male-typical anatomy inside their body. Some people have genitals that are in between both reproductive organs. Another example is that a person can have mosaic genetics, meaning some cells have XX chromosomes and some have XY.

However, it is essential to note that intersex anatomy does not always appear at birth. It can become more evident during puberty or explain infertility issues as an adult. Some may even never know that they have intersex anatomy.

For intersex differences that are more obvious at birth, there can be a risk of surgeries that “correct” infant genitalia. This process is called intersex genital mutilation (IGM), which we will get into further. In essence, during this option, the parents decide what to do. That means that the child is left out of any decision-making abilities. This practice stems from a fear that bodies will mean that a person will become gay or transgender. However, this notion couldn’t be more wrong and is outdated and homophobic, and/or transphobic. Intersex people can have identified as any gender or sexual orientation. It is essential to fight against these kinds of surgeries so that intersex people do not have to have their bodily integrity stripped away.

Since intersex is such a broad range of experiences, there are many ways people have intersex bodies. Not all people will have to go through the potential of surgery or with their parents finding out right at birth. Some people may not even know that their personal experience falls within the category of intersex. Their parents may not even find out about it at birth. Many teens are even told medical terminology that they don’t know and will discover their identity later after researching through online sources.

What Is Intersex Genital Mutilation?

According to Organization Intersex International, Intersex Genital Mutilation is performing surgery on young folks due to cultural or religious regions. Often, medical necessity is the reason used for surgery. However, recent research has proven that young people who don’t have surgery are healthy until they can get to an age where they can advocate for themselves and make a decision. If an intersex person decides to have surgery because it’s what they want for themselves, that’s perfectly acceptable. The primary issue with this kind of surgery is that a young person cannot consent to the surgery. 

Even though intersex people aren’t abnormal whatsoever, doctors to this day continue to perform unnecessary genital surgeries without the patient being able to consent or advocate for themselves. The bias among doctors is that they feel the need to “fix” an intersex person. Outdated cultural ideals suggest that there is a “right” way to be a girl or boy or how genitalia “should” look. Many surgeons are also motivated to operate because parents will be worried and overwhelmed, and unsure what to do for their child. In essence, IGM can be harmful, traumatic, and continue to spread shame and stigma for being intersex. Many of these surgeries are purely cosmetic and can do lasting harm.  

A Factsheet 

Here are some facts:

1) Not every intersex person identifies within the LGBTQ+ community.

However, many intersex people do and require a community to understand and support their needs. It is essential not to make assumptions about intersex people and whether they identify as LGBTQ+.

2) Intersex does not equal transgender.

While some intersex people do identify as trans, this is not the case for everyone. Intersex and trans folks may have similar experiences, but everyone is unique in their identity and what they have gone through. There are also distinct differences between them.

3) Intersex people are more complex, and it’s not just about their genitalia. 

Intersex traits aren’t defined only by genitalia. There are other factors involved like hormones, chromosomes, and secondary sex characteristics. 

4) You can never tell anyone’s identity by simply looking at them. 

This notion is true for many different LGBTQ+ identities and applies to intersex people. Never make assumptions about people’s gender, identity, or sexual identity; that’s up to them to disclose it. 

Also, as depicted in the media, many people think intersex people are white and femme. However, there are all kinds of intersex people worldwide, with various races and gender identities. 

5) No intersex person has the exact same experience. 

Since there are 35 and more intersex variations, there is no one way to be intersex. Many intersex individuals may experience some challenges in their lifetime, but no one will have the same lived experience. 

6) All intersex bodies are different from each other. 

Even though some people think intersex bodies may look the same, they are all quite separate from each other. 

7) **CW – use of a slur.

Never refer to an intersex person as a “hermaphrodite.”

Hermaphrodite is an archaic term that stigmatizes intersex bodies. It also detracts from the reality of an intersex person’s life.

What Allies Can Do

Even if you don’t know an intersex person, it is essential to be a good ally. Since intersex folks can experience erasure in their identity, it is vital to include them in the conversation. You can read articles about being intersex and make sure intersex people feel include and safe in LGTBQ+ spaces.

How to Find Support 

If you are intersex, there are many ways to find a community and support. There are groups like interACT Youth that provide advocacy for youths ages 13 to 29. 

There is a thriving intersex community worldwide, and there are always groups to join where you can connect with others. You can search online, on Facebook, or using hashtags on platforms like Instagram or TikTok. Just know that you are not alone, and there are many intersex people out there in the world. 

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Billie Olsen

AUTHOR: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.