Co-authored by Dana Zzyym.
Much has been said recently, on the heels of all the media attention on Caitlin Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, about the issue of how people “identify”. Meanwhile, Intersex people have also been getting attention in the media, and an increasing amount of folks are finally aware of the fact that we exist.
Given both these factors, it seems like a good time to discuss where Intersex people fall into the discussion of “identifying” oneself. First off, in case you still haven’t heard of us: intersex people are born with bodies that are not typically or exclusively male or female. Although many folks are just recently learning about us, our existence is nothing new, but rather, dates back to the beginning of humanity. We were known as hermaphrodites in ancient times, and we’re just another example of the natural diversity of the human species.
[Note: For all you grammar nerds and/or careful readers out there, you may notice that the word “intersex” is sometimes capitalized in this piece and sometimes not; that’s because one of us likes to capitalize the word as an expression of pride, and the other, while also proud, is more of stickler for grammatical correctness.]
Before diving in, we want to note that lots of folks, both intersex and not, feel that intersex people shouldn’t have to “identify” as such: we just are intersex because we were born that way. It’s a biology based viewpoint similar to the way that people born with male sex characteristics don’t have to “identify” as “men” because it’s just assumed that they are. (Note we didn’t say that their “biological sex” was male, but that they have male “sex characteristics”. Cool huh? More on that soon in another essay.)
At the same time, it has also been increasingly stated that not all people who are born Intersex “identify” as intersex, but rather, as men or women. It makes perfect sense to those of us who know, love, and/or support trans people. We realize folks don’t always grow up to identify as the gender associated with the biological sex traits they were born with.
However, it’s very important to recognize that some of us who were born intersex also identify as such. That may seem obvious, but it bears repeating, given popular claims that the vast majority of us have binary gender identities, and that intersex people are not part of the non-binary gender community.
We are very aware, from personal as well as advocacy experience, that it’s difficult to identify as something that hasn’t been socially recognized or accepted. In fact, we’ve often been told by folks just discovering that they were born Intersex that they’ve been identifying as men or women simply because those were the only categories available to them. Indeed, that’s how openly gender fluid actress Ruby Rose recently answered the question when it was put to her character on the popular television series Orange is the New Black. Piper asks, “You don’t consider yourself to be a woman?” and Stella, Rose’s character, responds, “I do, but only because my options are limited.”
Given the limited options, and the fact that most intersex children are particularly pressured to identify as either boys or girls, it’s easy to see why many of us would do so as adults. Saying that most intersex people do not identify as intersex without taking these significant social factors into account is like having said, “most homosexuals do not identify as gay or lesbian”, before it was common, accepted or safe for them to do so. Gays and lesbians have always existed, long before they began “identifying” as such, and it’s important to keep in mind that the same is true for intersex people. If we don’t, we run the risk of confusing folks into thinking that, since most of us don’t “identify” as intersex, then non-consensual “normalizing” surgeries are okay as long as we pick the “right one”. (Mind you, this reasoning is faulty as it misses the central human rights issue, which is that only we have the right to make such decisions about our bodies. Trust me though; I’ve often seen it.)
The truth is, humans are a complex bunch, and intersex people, like all humans, identify our gender in a variety of ways and should have the right to do so. Some even prefer not to “identify” at all, stating that they were born intersex and do not have to “identify” as such or as any particular gender identity. Interestingly, there’s now a “gender identity” which describes this experience: agender. Also, humans are required to legally identify their gender, and almost all languages use pronouns that are gendered in some way. So even if we want to be genderless, it’s not yet entirely possible to escape identifying it, or having it identified for us.
Here, then, is a breakdown of the three main ways in which Intersex people “identify” our gender.
- Some intersex people identify with the gender associated with the sex they were assigned at birth (male or female). They express this with the terms “male” or “female”, “man” or “woman”, and/or “intersex man” or “intersex woman”.
Tran and intersex scholar Cary Gabriel Costello has suggested the term “ipso gender” for intersex people with this experience to distinguish them from non-intersex people who share it, typically known as “cisgender”. (For those of you till unfamiliar with the term, “cisgender” was recently added to the Oxford Dictionary, and is defined as, “Denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender.”)
As discussed in one of our earlier essays, intersex people are vulnerable to extreme forms of violence and discrimination (such as non-consensual “normalizing” surgeries) due to the prejudice against the gender that corresponds to our biological sex characteristics. This does not correspond with the experience of “cisgender privilege”, and holds true whether or not we have normative gender identities or expressions.
- Some Intersex people identify as the gender associated with the ”opposite” sex as the one they were assigned at birth. They, too, may express this with the terms “male’ or “female”, “man” or “woman”, and/or “intersex man” or “intersex woman”. In addition, some of the intersex people in this category identify as trans, and may say they are both trans and intersex.
- Some intersex people – including the authors of this piece — identify as neither men or women, both men and women, or both. We may express this with the terms, “non-binary Intersex people”, “herms”, “genderqueer”, “gender fluid” and other non-binary gender identities, or, simply, “intersex”.
Those of us in this group feel that our non-binary gender identity matches our original non-binary sex characteristics. We have sometimes been further marginalized, even within the intersex community because both our bodies and our gender identities vary from gender norms. We also note that this outcome is exactly what those who promote Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) are trying to avoid by subjecting intersex infants and minors to surgical and hormonal “normalization”. They incorrectly assume that changing our bodies will produce hetero-normative, gender-normative outcomes. It doesn’t. We know tons of intersex people whom, regardless of being subjected to IGM, have grown up to be queer – and unless you’re a big bigot you should realize that there’s nothing wrong with that!
Some of you may be noticing that the intersex folks in this third category could be defined as cisgender because our gender identity matches our natal biological sex characteristics. However, just like intersex folks with binary gender identities, we do not experience cisgender privilege. In short, although created with the good intention of pointing to and dismantling the discrimination that trans people face, the term cisgender is based on the erroneously binary model of sex, and thus only works, as intended, if you pretend that intersex people don’t exist. (If you want to learn more about why, you can find an in-depth explanation here.)
Back to the issue of how we “identify”, some folks have criticized intersex people who identify their gender as Intersex, stating this is not appropriate since it’s a biological term. In fact, one of us even wrote a blog post about these linguistic issues, suggesting that those of us with a non-binary gender identity use “herm”. However, biological sex and gender terms became interchangeable in the U.S. legal system when the first trans person was allowed to change their gender marker: rather than using “man” or “woman” to describe their new legal gender, the terms “male” or “female” were, and continue to be, used. Also, many trans people today use the biological terms male and female in social discourse to describe their gender identity.
Basically, when it comes to how humans live their lives and are legally identified, “sex” and “gender” and the terms associated with them are conflated and used interchangeably. Thus, in an equal society, Intersex people should be similarly allowed to use our biological term to identify our gender if we wish.
In fact, we believe that visibility and acceptance of intersex people as whole individuals with our own unique gender is critical towards ending the severe forms of oppression we are subjected to, including Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM). This is demonstrated by the fact that while enormous efforts have been made in the U.S. to spread gender binary conforming beliefs about intersex people, these claims haven’t slowed down the practice of non-consensual surgeries/IGM. As Audre Lorde so brilliantly put it, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. In other words, we can’t stop “normalization” of intersex people by trying to convince doctors and parents that we’ll all grow up to have “normal” – i.e. binary — gender identities.
The Intersex Campaign for Equality, a.k.a. OII-USA, believes that all gender identities are normal and equal, and that everyone deserves the right to be and identify as who they are. Further, we believe that in order to end oppression of Intersex people, including IGM, we must spread awareness of the fact that Intersex people identify as males, females, AND intersex persons – and that that is okay!
Like all people, Intersex people are a diverse bunch, with a wide range of identities. We support them all, and encourage you to do the same. 🙂