Gender / Intersex

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"What are the correct pronouns for intersex people?"

- Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Claudia Astorino as a part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions

Claudia Says:

Hey, there, Anonymous!  First off, I need to tell you that I’ve been listening to a lot of Sleater-Kinney since the release of their fantastic new album, No Cities to Love, and I’ve been revisiting a lot of myold fave tracks too.  So when I read theword “anonymous” today, my mindbrain heard it in Carrie Brownstein’s delightful sing-yell voice – “AHH-NON-UHH-MUSS!”  So if ya don’t mind, Anonymous, I’m gonna call you AHH-NON-UHH-MUSS!  (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, then I highly advise you to check out “Anonymous” here– your ears thank you in advance!  THIS HAS BEEN YOUR DAILY RIOT GRRRL UPDATE, YOU’RE WELCOME <333 *feedback*)

Okay, AHH-NON-UHH-MUSS!  It’s time for a lil’ pronoun go-around – one that’s intersex-inclusive, of course.  The short answer is that there isn’t any one way that intersex people identify – pronouns or otherwise.  What all intersex folks have in common, at least broadly speaking, is biology:  we have a combination of what are traditionally considered “male” traits and “female” traits in the same body (and sometimes, also traits that are uncommon for typical males or females).

But move a toe’s length beyond these basic commonalities, and intersex folks are as diverse as any other group of people.  Although we might not explicitly say so, folks assume that your pronoun usage matches up with your gender identity.  Intersex people may identify their gender in a variety of ways.  Some intersex people identify as female or male. Some intersex people who strongly identify with their being intersex may identify their gender as “intersex.” Some intersex people have other non-binary gender identities, fluid identities, identify as genderless, or don’t identify with any gender terms or labels.  WE IDENTIFY HOW WE WANT, ya know?!

In the same vein, different intersex people have different preferred pronouns. Some intersex folks use she, her, hers.   Some intersex folks prefer he, him, his. Some intersex folks refer to themselves with non-binary pronouns, which might include they, them, their;  ze, zir, zirs;  ze, hir, hirs;  or other non-binary pronouns.  You can check out a list of some of the many non-binary pronouns that folks use here!

Bottom line:  for all folks, regardless of how we read them, regardless of what groups and communities we perceive or know they’re a part of, we cannot accurately infer how a person identifies.  And even if we could, one person’s identity can’t represent the many, many identities that members of a group share – there’s no one-fits-all gender identity or set of pronouns we can just apply to all the people in X group.  It just doesn’t work like that since identities are so highly individualized.

Soooooo AHH-NON-UHH-MUSS!, I’m gonna answer your question by basically telling you I can’t answer your question.  I can’t advise you on what pronouns to use when talking to any ol’ intersex person, because that totally depends on the specific lovely intersex person you’re talking to!  Instead, I’d suggest that when you meet new folks, ask them what pronouns they prefer you to use when referring to them, and then use ‘em when talking to or about her/him/them/zir/hir/other preferred pronoun.  SEE WHAT I DID THERE, I’M NOT MAKING ANY PRONOUN ASSUMPTIONS, BOOM.

One thing to keep in mind is that even though we conflate gender identity and pronoun use, those two things don’t have to match up in a binary way.  Just like we are free to identify as we choose – using binary terms or not – within an identity category, we’re also free to mix and match up our various identities across categories as we choose! So like, maybe you’ll meet an intersex person who identifies their gender as female, and also prefers they, them, their pronouns.  That’s totally cool!  Maybe another intersex friend you’ll make identifies their gender as intersex sometimes and genderless sometimes, and also prefers he, his, him pronouns. That’s also totally cool!  None of those gender identity & pronoun combos contradict one another because one’s gender identity/ies and pronoun usage/s don’t need to line up in any particular way.

I think you’re all set, AHH-NON-UHH-MUSS! Have the best day.


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"I’m a girl, but I recently found out I’m intersex and will never have kids. I feel so shocked, and I’m so scared to tell people. How can I get married? How do I handle this?"

- Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Claudia Astorino as part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions.

Claudia Says:

Hey there, Anonymous!

I understand where you’re at. Intersex people are great and fantastic, but we’re living at a time in history where many people still misunderstand intersex as a medical condition that needs to be “fixed,” or something to be ashamed of. I hope that your parents and clinicians know that your intersex self is also great and fantastic just the way you are! If learning that you’re intersex wasn’t a positive experience, I am sending you a virtual ((((hug)))) if you want it and some helpful links to resources on intersex basics: from your own Everyone Is GayAutostraddle, and the US chapter of Organization Intersex International(OII-USA).

For extra self-care, I recommend this video featuring a baby otter that was recently rescued and adopted by Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, I LITERALLY CANNOT STOP WATCHING IT, IT’S LEARNING HOW TO FLOAT, I can’t. *brain explodes.*


So, MS. FANTASTIC (can I call you MS. FANTASTIC?), you’re in good company – some intersex people are reproductive, and some aren’t. There are some intersex people, like me, who weren’t really interested in having kids in the first place. There are other intersex people I know who have had a really difficult time knowing that they wouldn’t be able to have children who were biologically related to them, who had their own DNA.

This, however, absolutely doesn’t mean that you can’t have kids or get married!  Lots of intersex people who want to have kids DO have kids through adoption. The kids that you raise and love and nurture are 800% as much your kids as any kids that would be biologically related to you.

If you have a brother or sister, and it’s really important for you to have a kid that’s biologically related to you, then you might also want to consider surrogacy, where you can use your sib’s DNA to have your kids.  That being said, I know multiple intersex people that have adopted and love their kids to pieces.  Being intersex will in no way prevent you from having LITTLE FANTASTICS running around!

The same goes for finding a partner and getting married.  If you find another person you want to have kids with, THAT’S GREAT – YOU CAN!  Just because you wouldn’t be having your own biological kids doesn’t mean you won’t have kids. Your future partner will love you and want to be with you for you, and that means being on board with adopting your kids. You seem to be afraid that you’ll meet someone awesome and they’ll walk away because you wouldn’t be having biological kids together. Although this probably sounds like a super-painful scenario, in all honesty, if this happened, you’d actually be DODGING A BULLET. If a potential partner can’t accept all the FANTASTIC that you are?  Then they’re not worth raising your kids with anyway.


A final thought: we’re all raised in a world where we’re told that, after puberty, our bodies “should” be able to do all these things. When you learn that your body, in fact, doesn’t do all these things as an intersex person, it’s easy to think that this means there’s something wrong with you, since you “can’t” do these things. I’m here to tell you that just because you don’t get a period and won’t give birth, that doesn’t mean that your body isn’t able to do something it’s “supposed to do” – YOUR BODY IS DOING WHAT IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE DOING ALL ALONG. Or that somehow you’re less of a girl or a woman because your body doesn’t do these things. Not all of us are comfortable or okay with this knowledge – especially at first – and I am not trying to minimize your feelings about this.  At some point, though, after you’ve processed all this more, I’d encourage you to reframe thinking about what your body “can’t do” (= is “supposed to do”) to what your body doesn’t do.  <3

MS. FANTASTIC, it’s difficult to figure out what’s going on and how you feel and where you’re at when you first learn you’re intersex.  Know that there’s a community of intersex people out there with love and support, and we even have websites.  And also out there, is a person you’re gonna raise some kids with.  And your kids are going to be amazing.

Sounds pretty fantastic, doesn’t it?  :)


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"I’m an intersex person and I’ve never told anyone. I want to tell my best friend, but I’m afraid they’ll think it’s weird and not want to be friends with me. Should I tell them?"

- Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Claudia Astorino as a part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions

Claudia Says:

Hey, there, Anonymous!  Coming out is a tricky thing in general – you’re putting yourself out there, you’re hoping to be accepted, you might feel a little nervous (or maybe a lot nauseous) because stress.  It’s not easy, and I support you in doing this thing that’s both uncomfortable and really important for you – GO, GO, GORGONZOLA!  (Your name – it’s getting close to lunchtime, what.)

There are often extra layers of trickiness for intersex folks since, largely, people still aren’t sure what intersex means – and by extension, how to respond supportively and appropriately when their intersex friends & loved ones come out. People mostly know what it means to be gay at this point, so if you come out as gay, your friends will at least GET that, even if they’re not super-supportive.  But people are more confused if you come out as bi, generally queer or not-straight, asexual, trans*, or otherwise gender non-binary.

Or intersex.

So coming out will likely not simply entail a casual, “Oh hey btdubs, I’m intersex, ok cool good talk,” whereafter you and PEPPERJACK (your best friend) move onto other important things in life, like watching Mean Girls and painting your nails.  Which – let’s be honest – what is more important than that??  (A:  absolutely nothing  #fourforyou)

For anyone coming out as intersex for the first time, I’d suggest they think about a few things before choosing to do so:

1) How much do you want to tell THIS PERSON? I am willing to bet that PEPPERJACK is awesome for a zillion reasons, and because you’re super close, you want to share this part of yourself that’s important to your history, identity, etc.  It’s only natural to want to share more, and more personal, info with your BEST friends (#duhhh).  It’s important to evaluate, though, whether your desire to come out to this particular friend is compatible with your desired end result after coming out.  Like, do you only want PEPPERJACK to know you’re intersex at this point?  If PEPPERJACK is kind of a blabbermouth and accidentally outed you to a bunch of people, how upset would you be on a scale of 1 (literally don’t care, let me help you find your megaphone) to 10 (volcanoes exploding behind your eyes)? Or, when PEPPERJACK has falling-outs with friends, does PJ ever make public their frenemies’ personal info told in private out of spite?

It sucks to have to consider these things, but the people we love aren’t perfect.  #fact. If you want to bring PEPPERJACK into your confidences but are pretty sure deep, deep down that PJ can’t respect your boundaries, re-evaluate whether PEPPERJACK is the best person to come out to.

2)  So you’ve decided to tell THIS PERSON, yaaay! How do you exactly tell THIS PERSON?  –  You are fairly confident that MANCHEGO, your bestie formly known as PEPPERJACK (my heart is a fickle mistress, ya’ll, and I need some variety #cheeeeeeeese #isitlunchyet), is someone who’s safe to come out to, and you’re gonna do it.  I like to start with something like, “Hey, MANCHEGO.  You’re the best chee- I mean, friend, ever.”  Make this more or less mushy according to taste.  Continue, “I’ve been wanting to tell you something.  Have you ever heard the word ‘intersex’ before?”

This approach has been the most comfortable for me because inevitably, if you just say, “Guess what? I’m intersex,” the follow-up from your own MANCHEGO will be something like, “Oh, okay.  What’s intersex?”  Asking them if they’ve heard of intersex opens up a conversation and gives them permission to feel like it’s okay to not know everything about what intersex is beforehand.  Also, it gives you the opportunity to gauge what they’ve heard about intersex folks and correct some inaccuracies they might’ve gotten through the (very misinformed) grapevine.  #omggrapes #FOCUS

And sometimes you’ll be surprised!  I’ve steeled myself to have the long conversation about intersex only to find that, “Oh, they actually do know about this!”  In one memorable experience, my now-girlfriend replied, “Oh, yeah.  I actually read your blog a while ago. *please-don’t-think-that’s-creepy grin*”  EASIEST CONVERSATION EVER.  #epicwin

But that usually doesn’t happen.  Figure out before having this convo what you’re interested in talking about and what you’re not.  You have likely been medicalized – like nearly all intersex people – and might not want to share everything (or anything) about your medical history, especially experiences that were upsetting or traumatic.  You might not want to talk about what body parts you do and don’t have.  THESE THINGS ARE TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE!  You don’t need to disclose anything you don’t want to, and aren’t required to be your friend’s very own personal Intersex Google.  #intergoogle #googlesex #ohdear #maybeletsnot

Because the stereotype is that intersex people have “both” a penis and a vagina (not biologically possible in the way you’re thinking, friends), I’ve been asked countless times to basically describe my genitals in detail.  I often say, “I’m not going to talk about what my own body looks like because I’m not comfortable with that, but I’m happy to talk about intersex in general.” It is often helpful to say at the start of the convo, “If you have any questions, feel free to ask me, and if I’m comfortable with them, I’ll answer them.  If I’m not, I won’t.”  Or even something more direct like, “Just so you know, I don’t want to talk about my medical history.”  That helps a lot in making it clear that your friend’s wanting to ask questions is okay, but that your boundaries are important and need to be respected, too.

Other questions I’ve had to think about responding to in advance focus on how intersex is perceived by society.  Folks well-meaningly ask what intersex “condition” I have, or want to confirm, “Intersex is a medical condition, right?”  Because I am the dorkiest dorkasaurus that ever saurused (#RAWR), I’ve practiced how to talk about intersex alone in my room, explaining that intersex encompasses a variety of biological ways of being where our bodies aren’t easily categorized as male or female, but we’re not sick or unhealthy with the bodies we have, so intersex actually isn’t a medical condition or a disorder.  (For more info on intersex basics, check out my first Everyone Is Gay Second Opinion response, as well as a Brief Allies Guide to intersex by Organization Intersex International USA (OII-USA) and “Claudia Is Intersex:  Let’s Talk About It” on the queer lady blog

Finally, you may feel a little (or REALLY) nervous talking about this for the first time.  Go at your own pace, take it slow.  Don’t be hard on yourself if you stumble or things don’t come out super-eloquently.  Coming out is often at least a little awkward, but remember:  you are just a human that’s telling another human about one aspect of your humanness.  Coming out as intersex is not a shameful thing to be or talk about.  Let your pride fly.  <33

I have had fantastic experiences coming out to my friends, and I hope you do, too.  In case your own coming out doesn’t go so well, though, have a game plan for how you can make yourself the most comfortable in uncomfortable scenarios A, B, and C.  And be ready to give yourself some self-care.  You can’t control what other people think and do, but you can control what you do in response and just decide to live your own damn life anyway.  #pride  Remember that someone else’s ignorance does nothing to diminish your own awesomeness.  Cuz you’re awesome.

Congrats on your decision to come out, GORGONZOLA!  I hope PEPPERJACK/MANCHEGO is supportive and fantastic and awesome because you deserve it.  <33

(AND GUESS WHAT, IT’S LUNCHTIME!  #yaaay  #allthecheese #NOM)


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"I’ve heard about intersex people, and the internet says that they’re the same things as hermaphrodites. Is that true? And is "hermaphrodite" an offensive term?"

-Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Claudia Astorino as a part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions

Claudia Says:

Hey, there Anonymous!  I am sure you won’t be shocked to learn that sometimes, THE INTERNET IS WRONG.  (*gasp, faint*)

This is one of those cases.

But I’m glad you asked these questions, COSIMA, your name.  (I’ve been watching a lot of Orphan Black lately – queer lady scientists ftw!  #notbiased  #okfineimbiased)  There’s a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be intersex, and how intersex people differ from (non-human) hermaphrodites.

Hermaphrodites are living things that have fully functioning sets of “male” AND “female” reproductive anatomy – either at the same time, or at different times during their life cycles.  They include various species of plants, fish, mollusks, and other little beasties, but not humans.  It’s biologically impossible for humans to have full, functional sets of “M” and “F” reproductive anatomy, so we aren’t hermaphrodites.

Intersex people, on the other hand, are those that have a mix of traits traditionally considered “male” or “female” – and sometimes, traits that are atypical for males or females – in the same body.  For example, I have breasts and a vagina (“F” traits) and also have XY chromosomes and was born with testes (“M” traits).  Some intersex people may also have traits such as ovoteses (gonads with both testicular and ovarian tissue), chromosome types like XXY, or a phalloclitoris that is sometimes described as a large clitoris or a small penis.

[FACT:  the penis and the clitoris derive from the same developmental tissue – hence, the term phalloclitoris. The term “ambiguous genitalia” is often used here, but like – that makes no sense.  People’s genitals don’t like, morph shape like those lava lamp bubbles, right?  Everyone’s genital form is just as real as everyone else’s – no one’s is “ambiguous.”  …You know, unless you only think typical M and F genitals are the only ones that aren’t ambiguous.  #notcool  #alsoincorrect]

There’s a ton of variation in what our bodies look like and how they function.  Think about the people you know and how different everyone’s body and build is, even though we all have bodies.  It’s the same thing for intersex people – there is a variety of ways our bodies can look in terms of what traits we do & don’t have, what our bodies do & don’t do.  Intersex is really an umbrella term for the many different, distinct ways bodies can be.  Even within a form of intersex, there can be a lot of variation!  Knowing someone is intersex doesn’t tell you any more about their body than anyone else’s.  No one would say, “Oh, well FELIX (my friend) is a dude, so you MUST know exactly what he looks like.”  Uh, nope!  There’s not just one way dudes look.

(But really?  He probs looks like this.)

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So, why do folks sometimes confuse intersex people with hermaphrodites?  In short, because history.  Doctors applied this label to intersex people several centuries ago, and calling intersex folks “hermaphrodites” is really problematic for the following reasons:

1) It’s not biologically accurate (see above)

2) The term derives from Greek mythology where the kid of Hermes and Aphrodite – Hermaphroditus – basically gets attacked and fused together with this water nymph?  And together, they form a “half-male, half-female” being.  (Take a moment to process this if you need – yes, this myth is totally bonkers.  #validationtuesday)  THE POINT IS:  calling intersex people “hermaphrodites” implies that we’re not real, that we’re mythical creates that don’t exist.  That’s both inaccurate and offensive.

3) Intersex people associate this term with the stigmatizing cosmetic procedures clincians performed (and sadly, routinely perform today) on intersex kids without their consent, with the idea that surgeries and other procedures will make us LOOK like “normal boys and girls,” so we’ll BE normal boys and girls.  I probably don’t need to tell you how totally messed up this is.  This is what intersex activists are working toward:  to end these unnecessary, harmful procedures and ensure our right to keep the healthy, beautiful bodies we’re born with.  Intersex isn’t a medical condition, and we DON’T need fixing.  <33

So, COSIMA – just to complicate things just a little bit more, let me say, though, that even though it’s widely considered offensive and not-okay to refer to intersex people as “hermaphrodites,” some intersex folks have reclaimed the term as a positive way to engage with other intersex people.  For example, I get “herm hugs” from some of my intersex friends, and one intersex activist I know, who’s a lesbian, has referred to herself as a “hermaphrodyke.”  Is that not the BEST WORD EVER?!  #bestwordever

I hope this clarifies things a bit!  If you want more information, check out my article on and the Brief Guide for Intersex Allies I co-wrote with my colleagues at Organization Intersex International, USA chapter (OII-USA).

And say hi your friend HELENA for me!

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