You’re in the delivery room with your partner, excited for the birth of your child. After many long hours, they’re here. However, in those first few hours, you learn something that you might never have imagined — your baby is intersex. Sure, you may have realized that the “I” in LGBTQIA means “intersex” but you’ve never looked into it more than that. For that matter, you don’t even know anyone who is intersex.
As many of our audiences are prospective parents or parents, we thought it a wonderful idea to share six things that you should know about what it means to be intersex, for as some of you some of you may discover — you could become a parent to an intersex child and with that you might have questions that we’d like to answer.
1.What does it mean to be intersex?
“Intersex” is a very broad term that covers a number of conditions related to people born with characteristics that don’t fall within the strict binary of “female” and “male.” These conditions may be chromosomal or could be physical and visible. Here’s a few examples:
- Infants with male chromosomes born without a penis or with female-looking genitalia.
- Infants with female chromosomes born without a vagina.
- Male infants born with an extra X chromosome or female infants born with one X chromosome.
- Babies born with ambiguous genitals (not really male or female).
- Female infants born without ovaries.
- Male infants born without testes.
Though some intersex conditions are present upon birth, others may appear or not appear later. For instance, some girls might not develop breasts or menstruate.
2. People born intersex is as common as people with red hair.
The numbers vary, but about 1 in 1,500 or 0.5% to 1.7% of babies are born intersex, which is about the same as people born with red hair. As there are many ways in which people can be determined intersex, there are many ways in which their condition occurred during development from hormones, enzymes, and sometimes genetic characteristics.
3. Not all intersex conditions are caught at birth.
Though most intersex conditions are identified at birth, not all are. As a parent, it’s good to be aware that some intersex conditions could appear around the time your child becomes an adolescent. For instance, some intersex conditions do not allow a girl to receive her period. Other conditions may be associated with fertility.
4. Unnecessary surgeries.
In the past, when babies were born intersex, they were most often subjected to unnecessary surgeries. Though it was commonly thought that the parents and doctors were helping the child by assigning them a sex that would fit the male/female binary, views have since changed. We have since discovered that these surgeries can cause incontinence, infertility, pain, loss of sexual sensation, and mental suffering. Similarly, some people born intersex grow up and feel forced into a gender category that doesn’t accurately represent their gender identity. The United Nations sees many of these unnecessary surgeries as possible human rights violations towards children who are unable to make their own decisions, but rather are subjected to cultural or stereotypical discrimination from doctors of parents about what’s right or wrong or normal in this world. So unless the condition is going to cause serious medical issues (it may be wise to get a few opinions), it’s a generally held belief that it’s better to wait until the child is older to make a decision (or no decision at all) about surgery.
5. Intersex has nothing to do with sexual identity.
Intersex is not a sexual orientation or a gender identity, it’s just a biological condition.
6. Discrimination is a real possibility.
As a parent with a child born intersex, you should know that they may be subject to discrimination in different areas of their life. You might find that there are doctors or medical caregivers who aren’t well versed in intersex conditions. Some intersex individuals may face issues with birth certificates and official documents. There have also been cases of discrimination toward intersex athletes and not being able to compete because of how they were born. Then there’s the educational hemisphere — students may tease intersex individuals and teachers may have never been prepared.
Though discrimination may occur in an intersex child’s life, a well aware, informed, and present parent(s) can make all the difference. Be there for your children. Speak to them about their feelings. Find medical professionals who are informed about intersex conditions. Talk to teachers about the needs of your child. Just because the world “might” discriminate against an intersex child, doesn’t mean that they have to feel alone or the full force of the discrimination — you can protect them and be there when they need it.
For more information, check out the Intersex Society of North America.