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Frequently asked questions about being intersex

Better understand what it means to be intersex


Written by SpunOut.ie and posted in life


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Intersex is a general term used for a person who is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the traditional definitions of female or male. When defining intersex it is important to understand that there is no such thing as identifying a ‘true’ sex at birth. The two categories of seemingly ‘true’ sex (i.e male and female) do not reflect the entire spectrum of sex characteristics.

If you are looking for more information about being intersex you can read our article "What is Intersex?"

Frequently asked questions about being intersex

How many people are Intersex?

One out of every 200 people have a variation of sex characteristics which, according to the medical norm, falls in the category of “Disorder of Sex Development” or Intersex. 

Do intersex people define themselves as men, women, intersex or another sex?

Most intersex individuals use a male or female gender identity and this suggests that they do identify as men or women. However, as intersex individuals can feel social pressure to perform as ‘male’ or ‘female’ developing a gender identity other than male or female can be a particular challenge.

Is intersex a gender identity?

People with an intersex body can have as many gender identities (and sexual orientations) as people with non-intersex body. Some intersex people have an intersex gender identity. Some intersex activists have noted that there can be a negative impact if those who are not intersex and want to use “intersex” to describe their gender identity, as it makes intersex human rights violations less visible.

Does being intersex mean that the sex of the person is unspecified/ unclear/ unknown?

No. It is only the current practice of recognising only two sexes, male and female, that leads to categorising intersex as ‘unspecified.’ Labeling an intersex person with an unclear or unknown sex is disrespectful and denies allowing intersex people to embrace their natural bodies and identities. Identifying the sex of an intersex person as unclear/unknown can also lead to their bodily integrity being violated by unconsented medical treatments.

What are the important differences between intersex and trans people?

The most important differences are:

  • Intersex is about the body. Being intersex means to be born with sex characteristics that do not conform to the medical and societal norms of so-called male and female bodies.
  • Transgender is about gender identity. Being trans means to have a gender identity that is different than their gender assigned at birth.
  • Most people who are trans were born with a body that matched with the medical and societal norms of so-called male and female bodies.
  • Intersex people may be subjected to invasive, irreversible treatment without their consent.
  • Some trans people seek medical interventions to adjust their body to express their gender identity but face problems getting the medical care they need.

What is the right language to use when speaking to and about intersex people?

People who are intersex are also referred to as having DSD (Difference of Sex Development). Some people prefer one term to the other so if you are unsure of how a person identifies just ask in a respectful way.

The word hermaphrodite has often been used as a slur against people who are intersex. A hermaphrodite is someone with both sets of working genitalia which is a rare occurrence in humans. Using this word when referring to a person who is intersex may be offensive and stigmatising.

Do intersex people want an X in their passports to reflect their variation of sex characteristics?

That depends on the individual. Options other than ‘male’ and ‘female’ should be available for all individuals regardless whether they are intersex or not, and official documents should be amenable by a simple administrative procedure at the request of the individual concerned. Only a few countries currently offer a gender-neutral option for people on their legal documents such as their birth certs, passports and driver’s license. Currently Oregon and California in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Argentina, Denmark and Malta, all allow gender-neutral birth certificates, passports, or other official documentation

How can I support the intersex community? 

If you would like to be an ally to intersex people:

  • Make intersex people’s existence visible by mainstreaming intersex issues in all areas of life and politics
  • Add the I to LGBT (LGBTI+) but remember that not all Intersex people identify as LGBT
  • Provide a space where intersex people feel comfortable with their identities, including the fact of not being LGBT
  • Inform your friends, family, and colleagues on Intersex human rights issues
  • Work with Intersex NGOs to get up to date information on the human rights violations faced by intersex people
  • Call out intersex discrimination or bullying when you see it
  • Do not fetishise intersex people or view them as different

For more information on making your school a safe space for LGBTI+ young people.

Are there support groups for intersex people in Ireland? 

Currently there are no support groups purely for intersex people in Ireland, but there are forums online where intersex people can find support. The Oii (Organisation Intersex International Europe) advocate on the behalf of intersex people in Europe, click here to visit their website. Teni (The Trans Equality Network Ireland) are also supportive of intersex people in Ireland, click here to visit the Teni website.

Learn more about how to support the rights of Intersex people. 

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Published Jan­u­ary 21st2019
Tags lgbti+ intersex
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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