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Guest Post: Intersex Is Not a Medical Condition

Claudia HeadshotGuest Post –
Claudia Astorino has written for Autostraddle, Everyone Is Gay, The Parents Project blog, and The Guardian. She writes a blog Full Frontal Activism: Intersex and Awesome and coordinates the Annual Intersex Awareness Day events in NYC. You can follow her on Twitter @intersexgrrrl and tumblr @claudiaisintersex.

Intersex Is Not a Medical Condition

LGBTQIA? Too many letters? Not, in my opinion, once you understand the importance of intersex issues. You probably know that “LGBTQ” stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer. Less commonly used is “A,” which stands for asexual, and “I” stands for intersex. With increasing recognition of the importance of naming, understanding, and including intersex people in the coalition of sexual and gender identifiers, hopefully the “I” will become part of the standard acronym.

Hi there, I’m Claudia and I am intersex. Intersex people are those with a mix of traits that are traditionally considered “male” and “female” in the same body, and sometimes, additional traits considered uncommon for typical males or females. For example, folks with my particular form of intersex— androgen insensitivity—have XY chromosomes and testes (“male” traits) as well as vaginas and vulvas (“female” traits). There are a lot of forms of intersex, so the term intersex is really an umbrella term that includes the many ways that intersex peoples’ bodies look and function.

Intersex issues are important to understand because of the ways that intersex people are conceptualized—and subsequently, mistreated. Intersex is often perceived as a medical problem people “have” that needs to be fixed, instead of a way of being that may constitute part of one’s identity. That intersex is construed as a medical condition doesn’t make much sense: we’re not sick by virtue of being intersex. There are some health concerns that are associated with some forms of intersex—for example, potential cancer risk for people with androgen insensitivity—but this is very different from intersex being a medical condition. For example, just because ovarian cancer is a condition associated with typical women doesn’t mean that being a “woman” is a medical condition.

Since the 1950s, the construction of intersex as a medical condition has resulted in routine “treatments” to alter intersex bodies to “fix” them. The idea behind this is that by cosmetically changing intersex peoples’ bodies—for example, reconstructing the vagina or removing the testes or ovaries—intersex newborns or children will grow into “normal” boys and girls. In reality, cosmetically changing what intersex people look like doesn’t change the fact that that child was born with less-common anatomy and sends the unsupportable message that less-common anatomy is a problem. Altering a child’s body without their consent doesn’t ensure they’ll be “normal,” since we don’t know who they “are” when they are that young. It simply deprives them of the decision to have the body they were born with. Frankly, this is no less than a human rights abuse.

For more information on intersex, here are some other essays: “Claudia Is Intersex: Let’s Talk About It,” “Brief Guidelines for Intersex Allies,”Your Beautiful Child: Information for Parents,” and the book Fixing Sex, by Katrina Karkazis. For organizations supporting intersex rights and education, see Intersex Campaign for Equality (ICE) and Organization Intersex International (OII), in particular, OII-Australia.