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What does it mean to be intersex?

“Intersex” is the term that a person may use when they have both male and female sex characteristics. These characteristics include genitalia, hormones, chromosomes, and reproductive organs.

Being intersex is not a disease. It is a naturally occurring variation in humans. Likewise, being intersex does not affect an infant’s physical health, though it may cause complications as time goes on, including potential issues with fertility.

This article will explore what it means to be intersex, including its relationship with sexuality and identity.

What does intersex mean?

Intersex is an umbrella term that describes differences in sex characteristics that do not fit the typically binary idea of male or female. Sex characteristics include genitals, hormones, and chromosome patterns.

There are many ways that a person can be intersex. The organization Intersex Human Rights Australia state that there are at least 40 different intersex variations.

Some intersex traits may be visible at birth, while others may not appear until the person reaches puberty. In some cases, a person may never know that they are intersex.

According to some estimates, up to 1.7% of the population has intersex traits. This is comparable with the number of people who have red hair.

Some people may also refer to someone who is intersex as having differences in sex development.

Intersex identity

One 2020 study indicates that intersex people may show a range of gender identities. Gender identity refers to the personal sense of an individual’s gender regardless of their sex.

A 2015 Australian survey reports a similar finding, with 75% of intersex respondents identifying their gender as either “male” or “female” and the remaining 25% choosing a variety of other options, including intersex. It was possible for respondents to choose multiple options.

Intersex is not the same as nonbinary, wherein people do not identify exclusively as a man or a woman.

The National Center for Transgender Equality explain that nonbinary people are usually not intersex. They typically have either male or female sex characteristics, but they do not see their gender identity as being either a man or a woman.

Intersex is also not the same as transgender, wherein a person’s gender identity may differ from the traditional expectations of the sex a doctor assigned them at birth.

Some intersex people may describe themselves as being transgender or nonbinary, however.

How to identify

Doctors will always assign intersex infants a legal sex. In most of the United States, this will be male or female. However, this does not have to influence a person’s gender identity.

People can self-identify as another gender and choose to live according to this gender. Some may identify as nonbinary and have multiple genders or no gender, while others may move between genders or consider themselves other-gendered.

It should be the person’s choice as to which gender they identify with. They should not feel that they must adhere to the gender typically associated with the sex a doctor or family assigned them at birth or to the gender that society may assign them based on their appearance or anatomy.

What happens when a person is born intersex?

Sometimes, it is obvious that an infant is intersex. An intersex infant may have:

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