What intersex is
Intersex people are born with variations in sex characteristics. Intersex Human Rights Australia (IHRA, formerly OII), a leading intersex advocacy organisation, defines ‘intersex’ as “a term that relates to a range of congenital physical traits or variations that lie between ideals of male and female… it is a spectrum or umbrella term, rather than a single category.”
In other words, intersex people have physical sex characteristics that do not fit typical notions of male or female bodies. There are dozens of different intersex traits. Some are apparent before or shortly after birth, while others do not become apparent until puberty or adulthood. Estimates vary, but it is likely intersex people comprise 1-2% of the population.
What intersex is not
One’s intersex status relates specifically to their biology, not their gender identity or sexual orientation. One’s sex is their biological sex characteristics, one’s gender is how one self-identifies, and sexual orientation relates to whom one is attracted. ‘Intersex’ refers to a range of different variations of sex characteristics; it is not a third sex.
Being intersex is not the same as being transgender. Transgender people identify with genders that do not match the gender assigned to them at birth. While some intersex people are transgender, many are not, and in many cases where intersex people seek gender affirmation, it is often because they are reversing earlier inappropriate medical interventions, not because they are transgender. Like non-intersex people, intersex people have different sexual orientations and gender identities.
Some in the medical profession now refer to people born with variations in sex characteristics as having ‘disorders of sex development’. This term was introduced in a 2006 “Consensus statement on management of intersex disorders.” AIGA rejects this categorisation. Provided an individual is healthy, and their body is able to carry out the functions necessary to remain healthy, then their body cannot fairly be described as being disordered. Physical differences are not disorders. A physical ‘disorder’ is better conceptualised as dysfunction resulting in bodily harm, and in the vast majority of cases, people born with variations in sex characteristics are perfectly healthy.
When to medically intervene?
Almost never. Genital surgery is only medically necessary for a very small percentage of intersex babies and children to enable their uro-genital organs to function properly. Sex-reassignment surgery and other masculinising and feminising interventions are never medically necessary.