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Understanding people with intersex variations

Intersex is a term used to describe people born with variations that don’t fit doctors' expectations of a male or female body.

A variety of different teens

This article was reviewed by people in LGBTIQA+ communities.

What are intersex variations?

When we are born, doctors decide our sex based on expectations about what they think a male or female body should look like.

People with intersex variations are born with physical features – like genitals, chromosomes or hormones – that don’t fit doctors' expectations of a male or female body. Intersex is a term used to describe these differences.

Here are some important things to know about intersex variations:

  • Just like all our bodies are different, intersex variations are normal variations that can happen in people’s bodies. They do not define who a person is or what they are or what they’re capable of!
  • Like everyone else, intersex people are assigned female or male by doctors, using tests if they aren’t sure how to assign an infant. Some intersex infants and children go through surgery or hormone treatment after sex assignment, which can be harmful, especially if they aren’t given a choice in this decision.
  • Intersex variations are not always obvious at birth. For some people, they might not be obvious until later in life – like during puberty or if they’re trying to have a baby.
  • Intersex variations are pretty common. About 1.7% of the population may have intersex variations, which is as common as being born with red hair or green eyes! 
  • Intersex variations come in many different types and are experienced in many different ways. Some common types are: congenital adrenal hyperplasia, Klinefelter syndrome, hypospadias, and androgen insensitivity syndrome.  
  • People with intersex variations use lots of different words to describe their bodies, like: intersex variations, variations of sex characteristics, or differences of sex development. It’s best to ask a person with an intersex variation what words they would like you to use.
     

Bodies vs. identities

Many people mistakenly think that intersex is a term for a particular type of identity or body.

Here are some reasons why: 

We’re usually taught by doctors, media, schools and others that there is one way to be male or female.

Being intersex can be confused with being transgender. Transgender means someone whose gender identity is different from their assigned sex at birth. 

Intersex means someone born with sex characteristics that are different to what is thought to be "typical" for a male or female body. Most people with intersex variations grow up to identify with their sex assigned at birth – this is often called "cisgender".

Remember that intersex variations are about differences in bodies. People with intersex variations may identify with many sexual or gender identities. LGBTIQA+ communities can be a safe space for people struggling with ideas about how women and men should look or behave.

Discrimination toward people with intersex variations

The bodies of people with intersex variations are commonly seen as different, which puts them at risk of discrimination, abuse and harm. The most concerning type of discrimination and harm that intersex people face is being pressured or forced to have medical interventions to make their bodies look more "typically" female or male.

  • Doctors and our communities can have very rigid views about how people should be. For intersex people, these views are about their bodies being and looking typically "male" or "female". 
  • Medical interventions are usually used because doctors and communities think that people need particular kinds of bodies to be "normal" or to stop bullying. 
  • These medical interventions are usually performed on minors who are too young to make decisions about their body and understand how it affects them.
  • There is no evidence that surgery in infancy or childhood can stop bullying or make "normal" bodies. People with all kinds of bodies grow up to have all different kinds of identities.
  • Medical interventions can have negative consequences on people with intersex variations as they get older – like pain, loss of sexual sensation, having a body different to one’s gender identity, and mental health issues.
  • The issues that intersex people actually face, including infertility, scarring and specific health needs associated with their intersex variation can become lost in discussions about sex and gender identity.
  • Because of the efforts of intersex advocates and their allies, there have been many steps taken to educate people about intersex variations, stop medically unnecessary interventions, and protect the legal and human rights of intersex people.

 

Some people may choose to have medical interventions on their body when they are older. The most important things about any decision is being able to choose freely, being able to make your choice without being pressured, being treated with respect and being given accurate information to help inform their choice. It's important to respect and support the choices people with intersex variations make about their own bodies and identities.

What can I do to help support people with intersex variations?

Here are some ways you can support a friend with intersex variations:

  • Learn more about people with intersex variations. Check out internet articles, books, and other media about their experiences.
  • Lots of people with intersex variations are worried that they are "abnormal". If a friend tells you they have an intersex variation, don’t make them feel worse by acting shocked, amazed, or sorry for them. Instead ask supportive questions like, 'How do you feel about it?’
  • Don’t pressure a friend with an intersex variation to share information about their body or medical history with you or anyone else. Remember, it’s their experience and right to decide whether they share this information and with whom!
  • Get involved in activism for intersex people by following a related social media page or helping people understand how diverse bodies can be.
  • Bodily diversity is great – think about how you can speak out when you see or hear negative words about people's bodies

"Intersex variations are about differences in bodies. People with intersex variations may identify with many sexual or gender identities."

- Alex, Kids Helpline Counsellor

Supports for people with intersex variations

Here are some ways you can support yourself if you are a person with intersex variations:

Educate yourself about your human and medical rights
Help people to support you by giving them information about intersex people
Build a network of supportive people, including other intersex people online or offline
Try not to feel pressured by others’ sex and gender expectations. Explore what being intersex means to you
Get involved in activism for intersex people by following related social media page or helping people understand how diverse bodies can be
If you need more professional support, contact Intersex Human Rights Australia or Intersex Peer Support Australia

Need more support?

There are a range of support services available

Intersex Human Rights Australia - advocacy and information about your rights

Intersex Peer Support Australia - can help you build an online or offline network with other people with intersex variations and provide support

Interact Advocates - provides information about people with intersex variations

QLife - provides counselling support

Kids Helpline is also here to support you. Give us a call, send us an email or talk to us on WebChat.

This content was last reviewed 16/01/2020

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