It's a - um, baby:

Intactivism and Intersexuality

... And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
  But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
  Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.

Shakespeare, Sonnet XX



The official position towards people with variations of sex development has changed remarkably since 2006. This has led the Intersex Society of North America to close. Organisation Internationale des Intersexués / Organization Intersex International (OII) is now the central site for Intersex information.

About one child in 2000 is born such that doctors are unable to immediately assign it as "male" or "female". (As many as one in 100 have lesser degrees of gender variance.) They are commonly described as "hermaphrodite" or "intersexed". (The term Disorders of Sex Development has been coined, but this too has been condemned as judgmental and pathologising.) These variations are commonly, but not always, expressed in the genitalia. Those who think in binary male/female terms call them "ambiguous genitalia". (They have one set of genitals, uniquely their own, not two.)

Sex Development Variations can vary in degree; there may be just a slight variation of the genitals, such as hypospadias, where the urinary opening appears part way down the penis, or clitorimegaly, where the clitoris is bigger than usual. The standards by which a child is deemed to have a penis that is "too small" or a clitoris that is "too big" are purely arbitrary.

Sex Development Variations can have a variety of causes:

  • Hormonal:
    • Androgen Insensivity Syndrome (AIS)
    • 5-alpha-reductase deficiency (5-AR)
    • Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH)
  • Genetic:
    • Turner's Syndrome
    • Klinefelter's Syndrome
  • Environmental:
    • Radiation
    • Chemical
  • and others. 25 per cent of affected people remain without diagnosis or established cause.

These names all suggest a disease, disorder, or deviation from some (societal) norm. It is heavily ingrained in us that everyone must be "one sex" or "the other". We don't even have the language (in English) to speak of intersexed people, states or conditions accurately. "He" and "she" leave no middle ground.

Gender identity
There is some evidence that gender identity (what sex we think we are) is internal, generated in the brain, independently of how we are socialised (nurture), but usually corresponding to our "nature" - the form of the genitals (phenotype) and the type of sex chromosomes in every cell (genotype).

Many people with variations in sex development self-identify as male or female. They may yet prefer to keep all of their genitals unmodified, whatever their external appearance.

Non-European cultures, such as Polynesia and Native American, often have a third gender category into which people with SDVs can be assigned. In India the Hijra (commonly called "eunuchs"), comprising intersex, transgender and other gender-nonstandard people, form a community with a clear (low-class) role.

(People are sometimes presented to the public as "hermaphrodite" or "man-woman" for sexual reasons or for profit: those may be transgendered, born physically male, with their original male genitals, but with a female identity and taking female hormones to enlarge their breasts.)

Most parents in our society are inclined to panic at the birth of an intersexed baby (they are, after all, inclined to ask "Is it a boy or a girl?" even before they ask "Is s/he all right?"). In the past, a baby's sex variation might actually be concealed from the mother until the "problem" had been surgically "solved". Nowadays, systems of consultation are more inclined to swing into action, but intersexuality is still seen as something "wrong" which has to be "corrected" if possible, before the child is old enough to have a say in the matter.

The surgical "correction" is often entirely cosmetic, focussed on giving the appearance of "one sex or the other" and having the capacity for heterosexual intercourse. The sex chosen is more often female, since that is easier to achieve surgically. Where a person with testicles is assigned female gender, they are removed, making "her" infertile.

Hermaphrodites speak out
Now intersexed people are speaking for themselves in opposition to non-consensual genital modification. The intersexed community has looked for anyone who is happy to have had infant gender-assignment surgery, and failed to find any.

The position is complicated by the intense grief and shame felt by the parents and communicated to the child. This may make the child want surgery in order to calm the parents, and makes it harder for intersexed adults to either complain about what was done to them or seek help.

Legal recognition of Intersex

Only a few countries have any legal recognition of intersexed people, such as a gender category other than "male" or "female", or protection from non-consensual sex assignment surgery. They are Australia, Colombia, and Nepal. Germany has a third gender category, but it is designed to be interim, until the "true sex" is determined, and this has proved counterproductive to the Intersex community. More details are on another page.

For further information about Sex Development Variations:

  • The Intersex Society of North America has closed. There is, however, an important farewell message at its website.
  • Its work is continuing at the Accord Alliance.
  • The largest UK campaign group is UKIA (the UK Intersex Association). Founded in 2000, UKIA now has 12 Associate groups around the world.
    "We campaign against all forms of medical pathologisation of intersex conditions, including the cosmetic surgical reassignment of intersex infants."
  • Organisation Intersex International (OII) "the largest grassroots intersex organisation in the world"
  • Australia has a branch of OII.
  • in New Zealand, the Intersex Trust of Aotearoa New Zealand at www.ianz.org.nz
    ph +64 4 381 2221
    PO Box 9196
    Wellington 6141
    New Zealand
    IANZ distributes the PAL version of "Hermaphrodites Speak Out" worldwide.

Ethical study

            Intersex and informed consent: how  physicians' rhetoric constrains choice by J David Hester


Assume Nothing, a photographic essay about gender-variant people in New Zealand, by Rebecca Swan

The Captain and Thomasine, a historical novel featuring America's first known intersexual, Thomasine Hall, in 17th century Jamestown, by Don Floyd


Black and White, a documentary about the shooting of Assume Nothing
Both: feature-length drama:

Bisexual but frustrated movie stuntwoman Rebecca in San Francisco is sent some photos of her brother Pedro, who died in their native Peru soon after his third birthday - or so she was told. But there are no photos of the two of them together. Rebecca is determined to find out why. Her gay colleague turns down another friend as a surrogate mother for him and his partner because the friend's child Morgan is intersexed - and she is raising Morgan unmodified to be whoever they will be. Rebecca's search takes her to the children's hospital where her brother died, but when she is told the surgery was successful and she sees his records, the pieces start falling into place. The arrogant doctor's name is Silver. (Any resemblance to Dr John Money is purely coincidental.)

Harsh Beauty, about the hijras ("eunuchs") of India
Intersexion (NZ, 2012) "...director Grant LaHood follows [Mani] Mitchell ... in America, Ireland, Germany, South Africa and Australia to meet other intersex people. ... Mitchell says the result is a heartwarming story told with a mixture of laughter and tears in the most frank and revealing way. Best New Zealand Feature Documentary, Best Editing" - Capital Times (Wellington, NZ) May 16, 2012

Mani's Story, Qantas Media Award-winning documentary about Mani Bruce Mitchell of New Zealand
One in 2000, documentary about intersex people in the US

Circumcision and gender reassignment
Involuntary gender-reassignment (raising boys as girls) has in the past also been a treatment of (doctors' and parents') choice for boys whose entire penis was accidentally cut off in the course of circumcision. David Reimer's was an example celebrated as a success at the time, but now denounced as a total failure - most of all by him. He has since committed suicide.


Other resources:

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