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What does intersex mean? Is it the same as hermaphrodite?

About one in a hundred people are born with biological differences that do not fit neatly into the typical definitions of male or female. These differences may be noticed at birth, or later on, or sometimes unexpectedly when the person has exams or tests for other medical reasons. Intersex is the term used to describe these biological differences.

In the past, the word “hermaphrodite” was used to describe people who have sexual characteristics that are both male and female, but today many people prefer to use the word intersex. Hermaphrodite is considered offensive by some people. (Intersex is different from being transgender, bisexual, gay or lesbian.)

An intersex person’s anatomy is different than what society expects. A person might look female on the outside, but have mostly male organs on the inside. Or a person might have sex chromosomes that are different than expected.

Intersex persons may have genitals that differ from what society expects. For instance, an intersex person might have a penis that is a lot smaller than usual. Or a clitoris that is a lot larger. Sometimes a person has a combination of both parts.

Sometimes parents have children undergo surgery to bring their genitals into alignment with society’s expectations. That means the parents and doctor must make a guess at what sex the child or infant would like to be. This is usually done before children can fully understand the implications of the surgery. In the past, families with intersex children were discouraged from talking about this at all. Intersex people have recently begun talking with each other about their experiences and speaking out about how they feel about these surgeries and about being intersex.

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