Tomorrow, October 26th, is Intersex Awareness Day. It’s a day that most people have never heard of and may even wonder why it matters. And why would it matter and be talked about on a website about transgender youth?
Good question! So first, let’s talk about what ‘intersex’ is so that we can then talk about why it’s important to be an ally and how exactly to do that.
Intersex is an umbrella term (just like transgender is an umbrella term) for differences in sex traits or reproductive anatomy. Those differences show up in many ways: chromosomes, hormone profiles, internal anatomy, and external genitalia. Some of these characteristics are obvious at birth, but others won’t show up until puberty, or even much later in life as individuals search for answers to medical challenges they face.
When you see the longer version of our familiar acronym — LGBTQIA+ — the “I” stands for intersex. Because of this, and because intersex conditions affect a person’s body, a lot of people will mistakenly think of being intersex as being transgender. But notice that a lot of other letters in the acronym (L, G, B, sometimes A, sometimes +) don’t have anything to do with gender. So the “I” doesn’t necessarily affect a person’s gender either.
Being intersex doesn’t impact a person’s sexual orientation at all. And many intersex children are raised with typical male or female gender roles and expectations, and their gender identity aligns with how they are raised. They never feel a disconnect between how they see themselves and how others have seen them…so they are cisgender. Some intersex folks grow up to realize that they gender they were raised as really isn’t the best fit for them, and they would be considered both intersex and transgender.
The main reason that Intersex is included in the LGBTQIA acronym is because of how society views differences. There is a myth that one’s gender is directly tied to one’s body parts…and that affects both intersex and transgender people. And just as many trans people have to fight to get medical care and surgeries that help them feel more comfortable in their bodies, the intersex community is fighting against surgeries they don’t want — including surgeries performed on infants and toddlers without their consent.
Fighting for bodily autonomy and fighting against stigma are common themes and why we are stronger fighting together as allies.
How can we be allies to the intersex community?
InterAct is a wonderful organization that focuses on supporting intersex individuals, education, and advocacy. They have a helpful list of 26 things you can do to be an ally. Here is a highlight of a few items from their list:
- Think about the language you use to describe bodies. This is probably easier for a transgender person or ally to the trans community than it is for others. We usually have a head-start on straight-forward, medically-accurate, non-gendered terms. We can stop referring to body parts as being “male” or “female” and stop thinking of XX/XY chromosomes as the drivers of what our bodies look like.
- Learn about what intersex surgery is and who opposes intersex bodily autonomy. Intersex surgeries are almost never necessary before puberty, and even for adults, may have nothing to do with medical need. But surgeries are still often recommended to parents of babies with intersex traits — with many of those parents saying that they felt pressured to agree — for aesthetic purposes. And despite outcry from intersex adults saying how harmful those surgeries are and how their lives have been affected, many hospitals and surgeons oppose banning those procedures.
- Sign (or start) a petition focused on your local hospital, asking them to delay intersex surgeries on children until they can be educated and offer individual consent.
- Have conversations about intersex issues with the people in your life. It’s important that we all start thinking about the rights of individuals to control what happens to their bodies and to end stigma around people who don’t match our “ideal” standards. Talk to friends about what they would do it their child was born with intersex traits. Start having the conversations now so that parents can be prepared for the possibility and feel less pressured to make decisions later.
- Share a graphic or article about Intersex Awareness Day tomorrow (or any other day!) because knowledge is power. This page has many to choose from.
Want to know more? Here’s a great TedX Talk by Kristina and Ori Turner. Ten-year-old Ori will tell you that “Intersex is Awesome!”