Some people are born with a mix of male and female biological traits that can make it hard for doctors to assign them a male or female sex. These people are intersex.
What does intersex mean?
The intersex definition is a person is born with a combination of male and female biological characteristics, such as chromosomes or genitals, that can make it difficult for doctors to assign their sex as distinctly male or female.
Being intersex is a naturally occurring variation in humans, and isn’t a medical problem. It’s also more common than most people realize. It’s hard to know exactly how many people are intersex, but estimates suggest that about 1 in 100 people born in the U.S. is intersex.
There are many different intersex variations. Some intersex people have ambiguous genitalia or internal sex organs, such as a person with both ovarian and testicular tissues. Other intersex people have a combination of chromosomes that is different than XY (male) and XX (female), like XXY. And some people are born with what looks like totally male or totally female genitals, but their internal organs or hormones released during puberty don’t match.
If a person is born with intersex genitalia, they might be identified as intersex at birth. For people born with more clearly male or female external genitals, they might not know they’re intersex until later in life, like when they go through puberty. Sometimes a person can live their whole life without ever discovering that they’re intersex.
What happens when someone is born intersex?
Awareness of intersex conditions is growing. In the past, when a baby was born intersex, doctors and the family would decide on a gender and raise the baby as that gender — either male or female. It was common for surgery to be done on the baby’s genitals and also for the child to be given male or female hormones as they went through puberty. But of course sometimes the gender they picked didn’t match the gender identity the young person grew up to have.
So today, more and more people believe unnecessary surgery and other medical interventions should be postponed until intersex people are old enough to decide for themselves what gender they identify with and what, if any, treatments they want.
If you have a child who’s intersex, open conversation about gender is especially important throughout your child’s life — whether or not your child has gender-assignment surgery. It can help your child develop a healthy gender identity and body image.