Today is #IntersexAwarenessDay, celebrated in honor of the first known intersex protest, held at a medical clinic in Boston exactly twenty years ago, on October 26th. Although we’ve made a lot of progress since then, let’s face it: we still need a lot more awareness about intersex people. I mean, we’re still so little known that recently, upon learning of my activism, a new trans millennial acquaintance of mine declared, “That’s rad! You’re basically saying, ‘Hello, we’re this other species, accept us!’” And while “other species” is obviously an exaggeration, I know what she meant because in a world long wed to the notion that humans come in only male or female varieties, being intersex has sometimes felt that way.
That’s why I was surprised the first time I heard the words “being intersex is as common as having red hair” uttered during my 2009 interview on The Tyra Banks Show. I’d given the show’s producer the 1.7% statistical prevalence figure for being intersex, and she had apparently compared it with the statistical prevalence for having red hair, which no one had done before. I’d thought about redheads in relation to intersex people, because both communities challenge binary systems (hair color and biological sex, respectively), but I hadn’t realized that we do so at the same statistical rate!
I found this fact incredibly useful in terms of my intersex advocacy work, and so I thought I’d share a few more. In honor of Intersex Awareness Day, I give you:
- Did you know being intersex is as common as having red hair?
Given that intersex people make up an estimated 1.7% of the population, and red-heads an estimated 1-2%, one could say that in terms of prevalence, being intersex is to biological sex what being a redhead is to hair color. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given these figures, red heads have also been historically maligned and mistreated, but I note that this is now largely a thing of the past, demonstrating that humans are indeed capable of thinking beyond binary terms, and of including and accepting those who challenge binary norms.
- Did you know there are over 5 million estimated intersex people in the U.S. alone?
As of the 2014 census, the United States population was 318.9 million, 1.7% of which could equal 5,421,300 intersex people living in the U.S.A. To take it a step further, as of August 2016, the estimated world population was 7.4 billion, which means there could be approximately 125.8 million intersex people on the planet!
- Did you know the vast majority of intersex babies are healthy & don’t need medical treatment?
When I first came out as intersex, I watched a medical training video where the doctor said, “The birth of an intersex baby is a medical and social emergency.” Today, the word “medical” has been removed in practice from that sentence, because doctors had to acknowledge that most intersex babies are born healthy, and that only some intersex babies, like all babies, have issues that require immediate medical attention for their health. However, some doctors still claim—based on personal presumptions rather than empirical evidence—that intersex births are a social emergency, and continue to recommend medically unnecessary surgeries and other treatments based on that perception.
- Did you know the existing research on intersex adults, done before “corrective” surgeries existed, found them to be psychologically healthier than non-intersex adults?
For his 1952 doctoral dissertation for Harvard University, the late psychologist Dr. John Money performed a study comparing a group of 250 intersex adults– all of whom had not undergone “corrective” medical procedures, as these did not yet exist- with a group of non-intersex adults, and found that they had less psychopathologies than the non-intersex adults. That’s right, intersex adults were psychologically healthier than non-intersex adults! (You can read a summary in the excellent book As Nature Made Him, by John Colapinto, or order the dissertation[i] from Harvard University.)
P.S. Some of you may recognize Dr. Money as the man who promoted “corrective genital surgeries” for intersex children, and may be wondering why on Earth he would do that, given what he’d found. It certainly does not seem ethical, but then again, this is the same person who was once quoted saying, “If I were to see the case of a boy aged 10 or 12 who’s intensely attracted toward a man in his 20s or 30s, if the relationship is totally mutual, and the bonding is genuinely totally mutual, then I would not call it pathological in any way.”[ii]
- Did you know there are historic and ongoing interconnections between intersex and LGBT people?
Lesbians used to be called “Tribades” in Europe centuries ago, and were often thought to be women with large clitorises that used them to penetrate other women[iii] (hmmm, sounds familiar…). Also, according to writings from the 1860s[iv] through the late 19th century,[v] gay men in Europe voluntarily adopted the term “third sex” to describe themselves and others, seemingly conceiving of themselves as an intermediate sex as a means of pursuing social acceptance and avoiding the connotations with sinfulness that homosexual behavior elicited.[vi]
I find this history fascinating but unsurprising because, during my own life, I’ve seen the ways in which LGBT people are often accused of not being “real” men or women, and in my mind that means they are being likened to something else–which is intersex. I also know that most intersex people born in the first world are subjected to nonconsensual “normalizing” medical treatments in an attempt to ensure that they grow up to be “normal heterosexual adults.” So LGBT people are accused of being intersex and intersex people are accused of being L, G, B or T–both with detrimental effects.
The “not-real-men-or-women” insult doesn’t seem to be hurled a lot at LGB folks in the U.S. anymore, but it still happens to trans people all the time, which brings me to the ongoing interconnections between our communities. While many people have been able to accept how homosexuality defies sexual orientation norms, this is not yet true of the way trans people, like intersex people, defy sex and gender norms. Hence, trans people are often subjected to violence as adults, just as intersex people often are as children, for the same reasons.
- Did you know that people can be both intersex and trans?
I wasn’t going to get into this here, because I thought it might confuse folks, but since I already hear from folks who are confused about this, and because I support trans and gender non-conforming people, here it goes. All intersex people born in the United States, and almost all other countries, are assigned male or female at birth, but we don’t always grow up to identify as the sex we’re assigned. In those cases, we sometimes identify as trans. Some undergo medical treatments and/or procedures to make their bodies conform to their true gender, and some don’t, but because they identify as a sex other than the one they were raised as, the transgender label works for them. It’s also important to note that some intersex people who go through this experience do not identify as trans, because they see it as part of being intersex. I myself fell into this category when I presented as male years ago after a lifetime of presenting as female. I didn’t feel like I was transitioning to a new gender, but rather embracing another side of my gender that I hadn’t expressed yet (I’m gender fluid, so my gender identity and expression shifts).
- Did you know that anti-trans laws negatively impact intersex people too?
I’m thrilled that there’s been so much criticism of the anti-trans bathroom laws, but also disappointed to see that few have noted that they also affect intersex people. Many of us who are androgynous looking, including myself, have used different bathrooms at different times. Prior to these laws, we’ve been using the bathroom we think will cause the least commotion, like all gender nonconforming people do, but now we, like trans people, run the risk of being prosecuted as criminals in certain states. Honestly, it’s maddening that these laws were ever drafted in the first place, because they demonstrate that the law-makers were totally unaware of the fact that there are already over 5 million Americans using bathrooms that don’t “match” the gender associated with our biological sex characteristics, because neither male nor female bathrooms do that.
- Did you know that you can help make the world safer for intersex people just by including us in your conversations?
If everyone learned from a young age that biological sex is comprised of male, female and intersex varieties, then coming out as intersex, or giving birth to an intersex child, would be worlds easier that it is today. Just as President Obama shifted his attitude about marriage equality after getting to know the LGBT parents of one of his children’s friends, you have the power to help shift negative attitudes about intersex people by helping people get to know us. Sharing what you’ve learned here is a great way to start, so please do.
Thanks in advance, and Happy Intersex Awareness Day everyone!
Author, Born Both: An Intersex Life – memoir coming 3/17
Founder and Director, Intersex Campaign for Equality
P.S. I explore these issues and many, many more in depth in my memoir #BornBoth, which you can pre-order here.
[i] Money, John. (1952). Hermaphroditism: An Inquiry into the Nature of a Human Paradox. Thesis (Ph.D.), Harvard University.
[ii] Interview: John Money. PAIDIKA: The Journal of Paedophilia, Spring 1991, vol. 2, no. 3, p. 5.
[iii] Rictor Norton (July 12, 2002). “A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, “The ‘Sodomite’ and the ‘Lesbian'”. infopt.demon.co.uk. Retrieved Oct 25, 2016.
[vi] Jones, James W. (1990). “We of the third sex” : homo Representations of Homosexuality in Wilhelmine Germany. (German Life and Civilization v. 7) New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1990. ISBN 0-8204-1209-0