If the queer community is known for one thing, it’s our ever-changing acronym. LGBTQIAP — Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual/Agender, and Pansexual. If you look closely you can see that one of these things is not like the other: intersex.
What is intersex?
To be intersex, one must have intersex traits which the Organization Intersex International defines as “chromosomes, genitals, hormones and/or gonads that do not fit typical definitions of male or female.”
These can result in variations of secondary sexual characteristics such as muscle mass, hair distribution, breast development and hip to waist ratio and structure. Just as there are infinite variations of being trans (as shown through gender expression and identity), intersex is also not cut and dry. There may be subtle variations including individuals that fit societal gender norms for how men and women present themselves.
Many members of the intersex community acknowledge that “male and female bodies” are not trans-inclusive, and terminology needs to be changed. It is important to remember that being intersex, for most folks, is a purely biological and bodily experience, not related to orientation or identity. Phrases like “male and female bodies” show the need for the scientific community to make a change in their vocabulary, and does not reflect on the intersex community.
Should intersex fall under the LGBTQ umbrella?
Just like any issue, there are pros and cons to both sides.
Similarities in queer and trans medical history
Intersex bodies are pathologized and erased in a way that is similar to how homosexuality has historically been treated within psychiatry. From this point of view, intersex is just another sexual minority that is pathologized and treated as “abnormal.”¹
Counterpoint: Many other things are treated as ‘abnormal’, such as wisdom teeth coming in sideways. Being incorrectly labeled as ‘abnormal’ doesn’t mean it makes sense to categorize intersex under the LGBTQ umbrella.
Similarities in being directly affected by homophobia and transphobia
Another reason that surgical treatment for intersex conditions is heavily encouraged is caused by homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. Western medicine defines “functional” male and female genitalia in terms of its ability to participate in heterosexual intercourse.²
Counterpoint: Homophobia and transphobia are dangerous, and associating intersex folks with the LGBTQ community could increase the probability that homophobic and transphobic parents would allow and encourage cosmetic infant genitoplasty. For the sake of intersex children, not including the “I” with LGBTQ would be wise. Homophobia and transphobia are two issues that need to be addressed and would be best addressed separately from the invasive medical procedures intersex folks have been through.
Affected directly by homophobia and transphobia
Association with the LGBT community could drive away homophobic and transphobic parents of intersex children who would otherwise seek out information and resources about intersex conditions. Worse, the misperception might push parents to demand more surgeries to ease their concern about the child’s future sexuality or gender identity.³
Again, homophobia and transphobia are horrific and dangerous. So much so that they could influence a parent’s decision to allow irreversible cosmetic surgery on their newborn. These mindsets need to be addressed, but it might be better to discuss them on LGBTQ forums, rather than ones focused purely on intersex.
Lack of intersex resources
Being combined with LGBT might prevent intersex from getting its own visibility, or make it hard for intersex people to find intersex-specific resources. If you were to search “LGTBQI” most of the results will revolve around LGBTQ issues, making including the “I” seemingly pointless and actually unhelpful. Adding the “I” would make it appear as if intersex people need the same thing that LGBT people need. For example, adding intersex to a hate crime law is completely insufficient to address the human rights issues faced by intersex people, AND it gives a false impression that intersex people’s rights are protected.*
Incompatible organizing methods
People with intersex conditions generally do not organize around the “identity” or “pride” of being intersex; “intersex” is a useful word to address political and human rights issues. In other words, adding the “I” does not necessarily make the organization appear more welcoming to intersex people. For many people, “intersex” is just a condition, or history, or site of a horrifying violation that they do not wish to revisit.**
Being intersex is often compared to the percentage of people who have red hair, where intersex folks make up 1.7% of the population, and redheads make up 1%-2%. This is a similar analogy used in the LGBTQ community to show the prevalence of LGBTQ folks and how our orientation/identity isn’t a choice. A common goal intersex activists and organizations have is advocating for body autonomy rights for infants, children and youth, condemning irreversible cosmetic infant genitoplasty. These do not correlate with the LGBTQ community, thus creating more confusion and potential harm for intersex individuals.
To include or not include, that is the question
According to Intersex Initiative “If adding the ‘I’ will help you become a better resource for people with intersex conditions, then do it. Adding ‘intersex’ to an LGBT group must mean a commitment to take concrete actions to address the specific needs of intersex people; anything less is tokenism, or a mere fashion statement, which will not benefit the intersex movement.”
As a community, we do not need to add the “I” to be allies and activists for the intersex community. We don’t need to pat ourselves on the back by adding another letter to our ever-changing acronym when we choose to stand up for a group of individuals that are often violated and abused. Now is the time to be active allies, without expecting a gold star in return.