Just what does it mean to be intersex?
A new BuzzFeed video, "What It's Like to Be Intersex," is attempting to help the public better understand this "biological variation" and combat stigma around intersex identity. In the video, four intersex people — Pidgeon Pagonis, Emily Quinn, Alice Alvarez and Sean Saifa Wall — break down the basics on this gender status, as well as the medical community's inability to agree about how to treat them from birth to adulthood.
No two intersex people are the same: "Intersex describes a person who doesn't fit the typical definition of male and female," Quinn says in the video. An estimated 1 in 2,000 people are born intersex, and these individuals "may have variations in their gonads, chromosomes or genitalia," she says. Whether intersex characteristics manifest externally or internally, biology does not always dictate gender identity or expression. Quinn has testes and identifies as an intersex woman, as does Alvarez, who has male-associated XY chromosomes "but typical female genitalia."
Often, doctors convince parents to let their children undergo needless surgery to "normalize" intersex babies shortly after birth, leaving no allowance for the child's own gender expression or identity. Many advocates call these surgeries genital mutilation, and intersex people are often told by parents, doctors or both to keep their "condition" quiet. As Quinn says in the video, intersex kids are given that directive — and that even depends on whether a child's parents disclose that he or she is intersex in the first place.
"My doctors always told me there was nobody else like me," she says, "so it just perpetuates a vicious cycle of shame and stigma."
Intersex is not the same as being transgender. One deals with biology, or sex, and the other deals with gender. Wall explains the kernel of difference in another way: "Often, intersex people get surgeries that they don't want, and transgender people have to fight for the surgeries that they do want."
Wall's internal testes were removed when he was 13 because doctors claimed they were "cancerous." He was raised female and given hormone treatments throughout childhood and adolescence, but struggled with his own gender identity until age 25. Today, he identifies as a black intersex man.
While the medical community largely remains in lockstep with conforming to strict gender norms, one thing is clear: "Intersex people don't need to be fixed," Alvarez says in the video. "There is nothing wrong with them."