Today is Intersex Day of Awareness, a day commemorating individuals born with physical sexual characteristics that are between the usual male or female traits. It’s also a day to celebrate intersex individuals, educate others about intersex meaning and to raise awareness about the challenges, discrimination, and violence intersex people face worldwide. So to get it right, we reached out to several intersex individuals and scholars to share their experiences.
Here’s what we learned.
What does “intersex” actually mean?
“The most common misconception of intersex people, at least that I’ve encountered, remains the one that we all have ‘both’ sets of genitalia,” says intersex poet and author A.J. Odasso.
“That’s a flawed assumption. Intersex variations can be chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, genital or any combination of those and other factors. Human sex-characteristic development is a spectrum, just as much as gender identity and sexual orientation are.”
Indeed, Odasso and some of the other people we interviewed consider “intersexuality” an outdated and potentially confuses the intersex meaning with sexual orientation (like “bisexuality” or “homosexuality”) rather than being a biological variation.
“Intersex” is not interchangeable with the word “hermaphrodite” — not at all
Eden Atwood, an American jazz musician, actor and advocate for intersex civil rights, says that some people also think that the word “intersex” is synonymous with “hermaphrodite,” a biological term for describing for organisms that can change their gender or that have reproductive organs normally associated with both male and female sexes.
Literature has applied the term to Hermaphroditus, the mythological son of Hermes and Aphrodite, and Tiresias, the blind soothsayer who switched genders twice in his life. But, Atwood says, the word is best left in the past.
“There is no such thing a hermaphrodite [human] in the mythological sense,” Atwood tells us, “and that word has been used in pejorative ways to harm intersex people.”
Indeed, for a long time medical practitioners used the word to describe intersex people, often using the biological term to justify non-consensual surgeries or drug therapies to “cure” them, a problem that intersex people face to this day. As such, the intersex individuals we spoke with largely preferred the terms “intersex” or “intersex identity.”
“The necessity of words like ‘intersex’ and its variations signal to me that the sex binary is flawed,” says Georgiann Davis, an American sociology scholar and researcher on intersex issues and intersex meaning (pictured in the main feature image above). “We are taught that sex is a simple two-category phenomenon, but such couldn’t be further from the truth across species, not just humans.”
How many intersex people are there?
Davis also says that another most common misperception of intersex people is that they are rare.
While we don’t have any reliable estimates of the number of intersex people in the world, a 2000 study published in the American Journal of Human Biology estimates that intersex people make up an estimated 1.7% of the population — that’s 125,884,605 people (roughly the population of Japan).
“I’m confident that every single person on this planet has met at least one intersex person in their life, and most likely, they’ve met far more than one person!” Davis says.
So it’s more likely that you might know an intersex person but just don’t realize it, Davis says.
In fact, you might’ve even heard of a few folks who’ve helped raise the visibility of intersex people and intersex meaning in the recent past, including fashion model Hanne Gaby Odiele, queercore performance artist Vaginal Cream Davis, Pokémon voice actor Maddie Blaustein, and Dana Zzyym, a non-binary intersex activist who is suing the U.S. State Department for a gender-neutral passport.
Intersex people also pop up throughout literature. The most recently famous fictional intersex character is probably Cal Stephanides in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer prize-winning 2002 novel Middlesex. However, Herculine Barbin — a real-life French intersex individual whose November 8 birthday marks the Intersex Day of Remembrance — largely figured into the award-winning up 2015 hybrid/poetry collection by intersex author Aaron Apps and, in 2012, DC Comics introduced Shining Knight, its first-ever intersex comic book hero.
One intersex refugee’s story
Tatenda Ngwaru — an intersex woman from Gutu, Zimbabwe — had always been raised and educated as a boy. But as she began to mature, she developed slight breasts, wide hips and a clear complexion. Then, in high school, she experienced painful cramps and had to go into emergency surgery.
During the surgery, the doctor discovered that she had ovaries and, in Ngwaru’s words, “female organs that were supposed to be outside.” Her family couldn’t afford to investigate what was happening, so Ngwaru began to think that she was transgender because she didn’t know what else to call it.
Eventually, a South African doctor informed her that she had been born as an intersex individual. Afterwards, she decided to return to Zimbabwe and start an organization serving transgender and intersex people, but ignorant locals began to threaten her life, thinking that she had been perverted by “Western culture.”
Recognizing how miserable and in danger she was, her family helped her move to America where she could find greater acceptance and even a community that would celebrate her.
But even though she lives in New York City now, things aren’t easy for her — she’s essentially homeless and severely economically disadvantaged because when you’re a refugee in the U.S., the government requires you to stay in the country for a long time without legally being able to work.
Her story highlights some of the stigma and oppression that intersex people around the world face due to ignorance, both social and medical.
Why Intersex Awareness Day is important
Intersex Awareness Day is just the first day in the two week period between it and the Intersex Day of Remembrance (also known as Intersex Solidarity Day, “an internationally observed civil awareness day designed to highlight issues faced by intersex people.”) The time span between the two days is known as “the 14 days of intersex.”
Intersex Awareness Day marks the first public demonstration of intersex people in North America in 1996. They demonstrated outside of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ annual conference in Boston as a way to highlight the Academy’s opinion that intersex individuals needed cosmetic surgery to “fix” their genitals or other biological variations.
Since then, the day has become a day of grassroots action to end the shame and secrecy around intersex identity; a day of reflection on intersex meaning; and a day of political action and education to help end the ignorance, discrimination, violence and nonconsensual medical procedures still inflicted upon intersex individuals worldwide.
Intersex people have long been subjected to unwanted and nonconsensual surgeries that often leave their bodies negatively impacted for the rest of their lives, lies about their bodies, secrecy and shame and isolation. Intersex Awareness Day provides our community, which includes loving and supportive family members, with a day to rally together to proclaim our existence, call for a stop to intersex genital mutilation and band together in solidarity. It is important. There is no why not.
Odasso agrees and expands on intersex meaning in the modern age:
I feel that Intersex Awareness Day, as well as the stretch leading up to Intersex Day of Remembrance is an incredibly important observance. It’s been encouraging to see intersex activism take the forefront alongside and in solidarity with trans activism. Intersex infants and children should not be subjected to so-called “normalizing” surgeries to which they cannot consent, and intersex teens and adults have the right to bodily autonomy without having to face stigma or shame. Having been harmed by another person’s ignorance, I’m more determined than ever to visibly and vocally celebrate intersex identity in the hope of educating others.
Odasso said that their partner of over a decade left them because Odasso decided to be open about their intersex identity and also because Odasso had a preventative double mastectomy around the same time after testing positive for a high-risk cancer mutation.
“[Intersex identity] has meant learning that bigotry and cruelty are often closer than we think,” Odasso says. “It has also meant being even more sure of who I am and what I stand for, and who I need in my life and who I don’t.”
Davis says, “Myself, and so many other intersex activists, advocates and allies, are determined to never give up the fight for intersex human rights. In that regard, every day is Intersex Awareness Day as we move about the world.”
Feature image by Georgiann Davis