by Cora Davidson
As we head into 2022, we can agree that our understanding of concepts such as sexual orientation and gender identity has grown substantially, including its’ nature as a spectrum and the multitude of realities and experiences lived by LGBTQ+ individuals. However, when we make mention of “biological sex” and its’ influence on the way it contributes to being assigned to a binary gender (female or male), many still tend to believe sex only encompasses female and male. From a scientific and anthropologic standpoint, this is far from the truth. The notions we learned of genetics in grade school have been expanded through extensive research, and it’s time we dive into the realities and misconceptions of those whose biological makeup goes beyond what we’ve learned in the past. And while I’m a science-lover at heart, I’ll try to make this as accessible as possible for whoever may be reading this, activists and service providers alike.
Intersex is a term meant to describe individuals whose reproductive anatomy or genetic makeup aren’t strictly identifiable as a binary “male” or “female”. Just like sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual characteristics and genetics are on a continuum similar to a color spectrum: there is more variety than just a grayscale.
These variations can affect external genitalia, internal structures such as gonads, secondary sexual traits such as breasts and hormones, and chromosomal makeup. Not all variations show up at birth, some show up over time, during/after puberty or later in life.
In terms of genetics, we were initially taught that sexual chromosomes also exist on a binary: XX (typically coined as “female”) and XY (typically coined as “male”). However, chromosome and hormone variations can lead to a number of non-life-threatening conditions that can be classified as intersex. Here is a non-exhaustive list of examples:
Such variations may seem like they occur infrequently, but this isn’t the case. They occur in about 1 in 2000 births according to the Intersex Society of North America. This is around the same likelihood of a child being born with red hair. Yet intersex realities tend to be swept under the rug, for the sake of society wanting to cling to a binary of sexual anatomy rather than its’ expansive nature.
When a baby is born, doctors are tasked with assigning them as male or female (rarely are babies assigned as intersex per se). In most cases, medical professionals would gage the size and shape of sexual anatomy as a determining factor in their assignment. In cases where there is ambiguity, doctors often resort to harmful and unnecessary surgeries to ensure that the baby’s anatomy can be deemed “normal”. Some of these children were subjected to these procedures without their parents being informed as such. Mentalities have changed over time, but there are doctors to this day that believe that medical interventions of this nature will help a child grow and develop “normally” like their non-intersex counterparts, although no significant studies were actually done to confirm this hypothesis. Activists to this day continue to fight to end the practice of performing non-consensual surgeries on intersex youth.
Absolutely! Even if medical professionals assigned an individual a specific way, a person’s gender can still be different than the initial assignment. This is notably the case for intersex people once they have found out about their intersexuality. They might see their reproductive and genetic ambiguity as a reason to explore their gender identity and sense of self in depth.
There are as many realities and lived experiences of intersex people as there are intersex people themselves, therefore it is important to not make assumptions or generalizations. Intersex people are more than just their bodies, and they should be able to advocate for their rights and for those of marginalized voices within the intersex community.
Cora Davidson (they/them) is an American-born writer and LGBTQ+ activist. They have been active within the community for the past five years, volunteering for community organizations and writing articles for GRS Montreal’s website. They are the administrative coordinator of Jeunesse Lambda, a nonprofit run for and by LGBTQ+ youth in Montreal.
Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date with our work.