Intersexuality and Why it Matters This Pride Month

—Julie A. Greenberg

During Pride month, the LGBT community may want to consider the critical issues facing members of the intersex community, a group with similar and overlapping concerns. Although the issues facing people with an intersex condition are not identical to those of their LGBT cousins, the discrimination suffered by both groups stems from similar societal stereotypes about sex, gender, and sexual orientation.

People with an intersex condition (a.k.a. Difference of Sex Development or DSD) have a congenital condition in which their sex chromosomes, gonads, or internal or external sexual anatomy do not fit clearly into the binary male/female norm. Some intersex conditions involve an inconsistency between a person’s internal and external sexual features. For example, some people with an intersex condition may have female-appearing external genitalia and testicles, but no internal female organs. Other people with an intersex condition may be born with genitalia that do not appear to be clearly male or female. For example, a girl may be born with a larger than average clitoris and no vagina. Similarly, a boy may be born with a small penis and a divided scrotum that resembles labia. Some people with an intersex condition may also be born with a chromosomal pattern that does not fall into the XX/XY norm.

Most experts agree that approximately 1–2 percent of people are born with sexual features that vary from the medically defined norm for male and female. Approximately one in 1,500 to one in 2,000 births involves a child who is born with genitalia so noticeably atypical that a specialist in sex differentiation is consulted and surgical alteration is considered.

Society and legal institutions frequently confuse intersexuality and transgenderism and inappropriately conflate the discrete concepts of sex, sexual orientation, gender role, gender presentation, and gender identity. Typically, men are presumed to have male anatomy, to be sexually attracted to females, to fulfill male roles and masculine, and to self-identify as men. Women are presumed to have female anatomy, to be sexually attracted to men, to be caregiving and feminine, and to self-identify as women. These presumptions are not true for millions of people and they are being challenged by people with an intersex condition, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, feminists, transgender people, and men and women who do not conform to gender stereotypes.

The existence of people with an intersex condition whose bodies combine aspects of male and female anatomy provides a perfect rhetorical device for challenging traditional notions of sex, gender, and sexual orientation. Because intersex bodies fail to fit neatly into the traditional male/female construct, intersexuality can be used to call into question our basic notions of what it means to be a man or a woman.

If we cannot easily establish what makes a man a man or a woman a woman, feminists can assert that the rationale for any sex-based distinctions is seriously undermined. Furthermore, if society cannot straightforwardly differentiate men from women, then gays, lesbians, and bisexuals can argue that same-sex relationships cannot be legitimately condemned. Finally, if gender identity does not necessarily develop in concert with sexual anatomy, then transgender people’s claims for legal recognition of their self-identified gender are bolstered. In other words, the existence of people with an intersex condition can be used to advance equality claims by feminists, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. When members of the LGBT community rely on the existence of people with an intersex condition to bolster their equality claims, however, they must be sensitive to the effect these arguments may have on members of the intersex community.

In Intersexuality and the Law: Why Sex Matters, I examine potential legal theories intersex activists could use to challenge current medical protocols for the treatment of infants with a DSD that have led to life-long physical and emotional trauma. The book also explores how the intersex movement could form mutually beneficial alliances with LGBT groups, as well as with feminists and disability rights activists.

Julie A. Greenberg is an internationally recognized expert on the legal issues relating to sex and gender identity. She is Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and the author of Intersexuality and the Law: Why Sex Matters, published by NYU Press in 2012.

»»»  Happy Pride from NYU Press! Save 25% on Intersexuality and the Law: Why Sex Matters, and other LGBT Studies titles, when you order via our website. Simply enter promo code DIVER12 online during check out, or call 800.996.6987. Offer ends on July 1, 2012.

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