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What Are Intersex Rights?

Women on a beach
An intersex woman walks along a beach in Barcelona, Spain. © Katia Repina

What is intersex?

Intersex people are born with sex characteristics—such as chromosomes, genitalia, reproductive anatomy, and hormones—that do not fit into typical binary categories of either male or female. 

Intersex traits are a naturally occurring variation in humans. Some intersex traits are visible, others are not. Some are apparent at birth, while others become apparent during puberty or later in life—or are never discovered at all. People are born intersex about as often as they’re born with red hair or as twins.

Being intersex is different from being transgender. Intersex people can have any gender identity, and also any sexual orientation. 

Why is the term intersex preferred to “hermaphrodite” or “DSD”?

Many intersex people find the term “hermaphrodite” insulting and an inaccurate description of intersex bodies. And although many health care providers use the label “disorders of sex development” to describe intersex traits, the term unnecessarily suggests that intersex traits and bodies are unhealthy or defective, contributing to intersex stigma.

What are some of the challenges intersex people face?

Intersex people often experience prejudice and discrimination because their bodies do not conform to other people’s expectations about sex and gender. In some parts of the world, people who have visible intersex traits, such as ambiguous genitalia, face abandonment and violence. Many intersex people are subjected to unnecessary medical interventions and some babies born with intersex characteristics are murdered. Intersex infanticide remains a major problem in southern and eastern Africa, South Asia, Brazil, and China.

By treating intersex traits as birth defects or disorders, common medical practices have reinforced the belief that intersex people need to be “fixed.” Many intersex people, including children too young to understand or consent to unnecessary medical interventions, have been traumatized by their experiences in medical settings. These experiences may include surgical removal of reproductive organs, alteration of external and internal genitalia, and subjection to pre-pubescent hormonal therapy to force their bodies to develop in certain, expected ways.  Some people have had their intersex status deliberately withheld from them by doctors and parents. As a result of these practices, intersex people are often reluctant to seek care at.

Intersex people also face discrimination at school, work, or whenever society segregates people based on gender. Intersex people often have difficulty obtaining legal identity documents that reflect their gender, or may not be issued identification at all, which can prevent them from going to school, opening a bank account and getting a job. 

What are “normalizing” surgeries and intersex genital mutilation?

In the 1960s, doctors in the United States began to recommend that intersex babies and children undergo “normalizing” surgeries, which can range from removing testes and ovaries and internal sex organs, to reshaping external genitalia to a more typical male or female appearance. These medically unnecessary surgeries are still common in countries all over the world. 

Parents of intersex children can experience pressure by doctors or other authority figures such as therapists, registry officers, and other members of their family, to have their children undergo these invasive—and in most cases—irreversible surgeries for nonmedical reasons. Because most of these surgeries happen when they are children, they don’t have the capacity or understanding to give consent. Intersex genital mutilation is one specific type of “normalizing” surgery carried out on the genitals of intersex infants and children for social, cultural or religious reasons—such as the belief that bodies should conform to binary notions of male or female. 

In comparison, female genital mutilation includes all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia—or other injury to the female genital organs that were done for nonmedical reasons. Some surgeries on intersex children meet the legal definition of female genital mutilation, since common surgical practices include the reduction or total removal of the clitoris as well as removal of the labia. Laws prohibiting female genital mutilation often make an exception for surgery on intersex children, but intersex rights advocates are working to change that.

How are these surgeries harmful?

Medically unnecessary surgeries can cause physical and psychological suffering. Children too young to express their gender identity may be surgically assigned the wrong sex. Surgery to alter the size or appearance of genitals can cause scarring, incontinence, loss of sexual feeling, and emotional distress. Removing testes and ovaries results in involuntary sterilization and may require lifelong hormonal replacement therapy.

Intersex rights advocates want surgeries delayed until children are old enough to make their own decisions about what, if any, interventions they want. Many health care providers have spoken out in favor of ending this practice, and international bodies, including the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the Council on Europe have called for an end to nonconsensual and medically unnecessary surgeries on infants and children, stating that they violate human rights and can be a form of torture. In 2015, Malta became the first country to ban these surgeries until children are old enough to consent.

How do the Open Society Foundations support work on intersex rights?

The Open Society Foundations support a variety of groups and individuals to uphold intersex rights. We engage with activists from Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas, elevating intersex voices and supporting community-led advocacy initiatives. Our partners include:

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