Intersex 101

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October 26, 2015

What does Intersex mean?

Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that do not fit typical binary notions of bodies designated “male” or “female.” In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth, while in others they are not apparent until puberty. Some intersex variations may not be visibly apparent at all.

Experts estimate that between 0.05% and 1.7% of people are born with intersex traits.

See Intersex Fact Sheet published by the United Nations Office of the High Commission of Human Rights (published September 7, 2015).

Diversity of Gender Identities

Moments after a child is born, the general practice in the United States is for a physician to visually assess the newborn’s genitalia and assign the newborn’s sex as “male” or “female” on that basis. But sex is much more complex, and is determined by a number of factors, including chromosomes, gonads, hormones, genitalia and gender identity.

A person’s gender identity, meaning the innate sense of being male, female, both, or neither, is the most important determinant of that person’s sex. Although there is not yet one definitive explanation for what determines gender identity, recent research points to the influence of biological factors, most notably the role of sex differentiation in the brain in gender identity development.

When a child is born with mixed or ambiguous markers of sex, doctors often assign a sex they guess is likely to match the child’s gender identity. But it is impossible to predict with certainty how an intersex infant’s gender identity will develop. As with any other person, an intersex person eventually may identify as male, female, both or neither.

Lambda Legal

Lambda Legal filed Zzyym v. Kerry on October 26, 2015, a challenge to secure a U.S. passport without a “male” or “female” gender marker for our client, Dana Alix Zzyym, an intersex person who identifies as neither of those genders and uses the singular gender-neutral pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their.” Dana is a U.S. Navy veteran who served in Beirut and the Persian Gulf.

Dana is currently Associate Director for the United States affiliate of the Organisation Intersex International (OII-USA). The organization, also known as the Intersex Campaign for Equality, advocates equality and human rights for intersex people, particularly the rights to physical integrity, self-determination, legal recognition and depathologizing intersex people.

Lambda Legal sponsored the development of interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth for four years before it launched as an independent nonprofit organization. interACT advocates for the legal and human rights of children born with intersex traits.