Born Intersex: Things You Might Not Know
Identity is the key to nearly every form of mental health. Whether it be hypo-therapy, psych- pharmacology, talk therapy, or simply couple’s counseling, every treatment that points us towards cognitive wellness insists we begin with a clear sense of who we are. In that regard it’s important that we properly define terms and have a good understanding of what they mean. When we examine the designation ‘Intersex’ we find it is often misunderstood. Sometimes it’s even mischaracterized by those who ally with the people it defines. The intersex community is more numerous and varied than most people think. In that context it’s worth being more precise. We must look not only at who falls under the designation; we should examine how their lives are defined by it and how well our societies handle that definition.
What Does It Mean To Be Intersex?
Intersex people are born with various gender-identifying parts of their bodies presenting in atypical ways. Sometimes these disparate parts of the body even seem to be in contradiction of one another. Some of the physical aspects affected in this way are listed below.
• Vaginal Labia
• Ovarian or Testicular Tissue
When a person is intersex, one or more of these characteristics may appear to be unusual. A woman may have a very long clitoris. A man’s penis may be very small. Someone may have internal organs usually associated with the gender opposite the one implied by their genitalia. Chromosomes may even be switched or doubled. Whatever the manifestation it should be remembered that all these characteristics are perfectly normal. They’ve been a part of human physiology since the time we were capable of noticing them. Their presence is so prevalent that they exist in one out of every two thousand people born. That’s literally the same frequency as people with red hair. Equally as important: intersex identity is strictly about biology. Sexuality and gender are different matters entirely, albeit closely related.
Some of the traits of intersexuality may not be visible until puberty. For that reason no major medical or societal changes should be forced upon the intersex person until they are old enough to be involved in the decision.
One of the tragic consequences of misunderstanding people born intersex has been the practice of so called ‘gender normalizing surgery’. This occurs when doctors and family decide at the time of the intersex individual’s birth to alter the individual’s body through surgery and other means. The adults usually choose the gender they believe to be most ‘dominant’. This action can have terrible physical and psychological consequences for the person later in life. Complications such as infertility, incontinence and bowel obstruction are not unheard of. Genital and abdominal pain are often reported, as is sexual insensitivity and hormonal imbalances.
Social stigma and identity suppression are just as debilitating as the physical trauma. A person forced into a behavioral pattern contrary to the one they feel drawn towards, may experience untold emotional and cognitive damage. Institutionally, legal definitions weigh upon an intersex person due to the misunderstandings. Laws governing everything from sports to marriage often strip intersex people of their rights and property, or at the very least, cast their status into limbo.
Hate crimes, of course, are the ultimate expression of discrimination. One of the oddest rationales for targeting intersex individuals for violence has been the bizarre claim they are natural sex criminal by virtue of their physical composition. Gender biases against both men and women are used to support the lie that intersex people have the worst of both genders’ characteristics. It is said they are thus more prone to crime and deviance. No evidence supports such a wild accusation, of course, but laws that involved these foolish claims have been passed then had to be struck down.
With such enormous pressures it’s not surprising to find occasional spikes in thoughts of suicide and other forms of self harm. In places like Kenya, Hong Kong and Australia studies have shown some alarming rates of depression and despair among intersex people. German studies show levels of PTSD normally associated with abusive personal relationships. Unsurprisingly, school bullying is rampant. This often results in drop-outs or low levels of education for some of the intersex population. Poor education leads in turn to poor economic lifestyles. The cycle can become vicious unless broken by intervening forces.
What Can An Intersex Person Do To Improve Their Life And Community?
Counter-factually all improvement isn’t strictly about your own activism. There are several courageous and effective intersex activists. They pursue several agendas and are responsible for much of the change that benefits the intersex community. Every effective leader needs equally effective followers, however. Being at the forefront of a movement isn’t for everyone, but supporting those movements certainly is. You’ll find that most people who put themselves on the line for you, need you to stand behind them, even if you can’t stand beside them. With you at their back, the activist’s job is much easier. The leader that represents millions is the one who usually gets things done.
Aside from public duty, intersex people have a right and an obligation to make their own lives as rewarding as possible. That can begin with something as simple as knowing they belong side by side with the rest of humanity without excuse or apology. They should fearlessly talk of their own needs and desires, and know their voice is as valuable as any other.
What Can Everyone Else Do?
You can’t walk in someone else’s shoes, but you can walk beside them or step aside if you’re in the way. As intersex people become more visible participants in day to day life, their neighbors and friends can acknowledge that visibility. For discrimination to work it has to be accepted. Likewise, freedom has to be more common if you want to end oppression. Seeing intersex people as a natural fact of our lives and as fully empowered members of our society is the best way to help them in their walk to freedom. It is after all the road we all happen to be upon.