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 INTERSEX & TRANSGENDER 

CLARIFYING TERMINOLOGY

Intersex and transgender are often confused: while a person who is transgender has a gender that is different from the one traditionally associated with the sex they were assigned at birth, a person who is intersex was born with a variation in their sexual or reproductive anatomy such that their body does not fit typical definitions of male or female.

  • Both intersex and transgender people can identify as men, women, gender-fluid, non-binary, or in a multitude of different ways.

  • While transgender people may identify differently from how they were assigned, their biology at birth typically conforms to a binary understanding of sexual and reproductive anatomy.

  • Intersex people are generally assigned male or female despite their anatomical atypicality, but may later identify differently and correspondingly identify as transgender. A person cannot transition to “become” intersex because having an intersex condition is defined as a variation in reproductive anatomy present at birth.

This document uses “intersex” to mean those who are at risk for non-consensual surgery in infancy on the basis of medically observable intersex traits (sometimes called Differences of Sex Development).

UNDERSTANDING INTERSEX & TRANSGENDER COMMUNITIES

Intersex and transgender people have a shared interest in autonomy — and may have distinct legal needs while facing overlapping barriers to appropriate care. While intersex individuals are forced to undergo medically unnecessary surgeries in infancy, transgender individuals are often denied desired medical treatment in adolescence and beyond.

 

Transgender people may conversely be unable to access gender-congruent documentation without undergoing surgeries that are, in some cases, unwanted. Both communities grapple with a loss of decision-making authority over their own bodies. By better understanding the similarities and differences between these two groups, both movements can implement better policy and educate the public about the shared structural barriers facing both communities.

CONSENT AND AUTONOMY

In the United States, intersex children often suffer non-consensual surgery on their genitals and reproductive organs to make their body look more typical, even though these surgeries damage sexual function and fertility. International human rights entities have called for an end to these surgeries, including the World Health Organization, Amnesty International, and the United Nations. American physicians recognized the harm of these surgeries as early as 1998, when the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association issued a resolution noting the physical and psychological damage of early genital surgery and calling for physicians to adequately inform parents of the negative outcomes and the opportunity to delay or reject surgery altogether.¹ Pediatric endocrinologists at leading hospitals have consistently outlined the need for transparency when guiding parents’ medical decision-making for their intersex children.

 

One noted physician, Dr. Jorge Daaboul, speaking of the previous medical treatment of intersex children, admitted: “Many of my colleagues do not believe we have been deceptive [about the impact of early genital surgeries], and they would resent my saying we have been deceptive . . . . But we have been deceptive.”² He later articulated: “I hope we can make amends to the [intersex] individuals we have harmed over the years, and I think our profession should do that in a formal way.”³

 

While intersex children are forced to undergo surgery without their informed consent, before they can decide for themselves what surgeries, if any, are appropriate, transgender people are often denied life-saving medical treatment in the form of gender-affirming surgeries and hormone therapy despite not only informed consent but their strong desire for these treatments. Sometimes, on the other hand, transgender adults are required to undergo surgeries to conform their bodies to typical notions of male and female in order to obtain accurate identification and other documents, despite that these surgeries are unwanted in some cases.

 

While it may seem like transgender and intersex communities are at odds on the pros and cons of surgery, in reality this is not the case. Our communities are united by the principles of consent and autonomy. In addition, both transgender and intersex activists want our communities to be able to access care that is medically necessary—that a person needs to live a healthy, fulfilling life.