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What does “intersex” mean?

About one in a hundred people are born with biological differences that do not fit neatly into the typical definitions of male or female that are assigned at birth. These differences may be noticed at birth, 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.

An intersex person’s anatomy is different than what society expects. A person might have external features associated with people assigned the female sex at birth but mostly have organs on the inside associated with those assigned the male sex at birth. Or a person might have sex chromosomes that are different than expected.

Intersex people 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 reproductive anatomy associated with both those assigned female and male at birth. Each intersex person is different.

Intersex is different from being transgender, which is a gender identity. Intersex is also different from being bisexual, gay or lesbian, which are all sexual orientations that describe who people are attracted to.

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, which has sometimes been seen as controversial for that reason. 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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