What Does Intersex Mean? 

There’s more to gender than male and female. 

Photo by Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Taylor Lianne Chandler—a woman who claims to be Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’ girlfriend—made headlines for coming out as intersex. This prompted hundreds of obnoxious headlines and social media posts ridiculing not only Chandler but intersex individuals generally. There is obviously a lot of confusion about what makes a person intersex. Let’s clear things up.

An intersex individual is simply someone born with sex characteristics that do not allow them to be defined as distinctly male or female. It is a totally natural, not infrequently encountered medical condition. Studies have estimated that as many as 1 in 100 children will be born with bodies that “differ from standard male or female.” It is estimated that 1 or 2 in every 1,000 intersex individuals will undergo surgery to modify genital appearance.

When do intersex people generally decide to identify as one gender or the other? The Intersex Society of North America recommends a patient-centered approach that involves assigning a gender at birth and allowing the child to develop physically and emotionally before deciding whether to undergo surgery to make their genitalia appear distinctly male or female. (Many intersex individuals choose not to have surgery.)

Crassly declaring that an intersex individual was “born a [gender]” is not only disrespectful, it is also incorrect. And while the stories of intersex people may have similarities to those of trans people, they are not the same. As with any sexual minority, intersex people are not obliged to talk about every detail of their past with you. The gender identity of an intersex person is their individual choice, as is who they decide to share that information with.

See also: “Intersex Movement Gains Ground in Germany and Beyond