Female, or Male ? There are many people who exist somewhere in the middle of this spectrum of sex
Intersex refers to a person whose gender-related characteristics of the body, such as chromosome arrangement, reproductive glands, and/or genitals, do not fit the typical "female/male" dichotomy. In this article, we look at how the characteristics of intersex appear, deal with the issue of involuntary gender designation of intersex infants and toddlers, and look back on the discrimination intersex people often experience as athletes.
Is ‘Biological Sex’ really a dichotomy?
Many people think there are only two 'biological sex’s'. If the 23rd chromosome pair, the sex chromosome combination, is XX, then an individual has a uterus and vagina, has a lot of so-called "female” hormones and is considered female. An XY combination leads to testicles and a penis, a lot of so-called "male” hormones, and is considered male. But there are also bodies that cannot be so easily divided into either category.
▲ A flag symbolizing Intersex Pride. This flag was suggested by activist Morgan Carpenter from Intersex International Australia in 2013. The yellow and purple colors of the flag have been considered the colors of Intersexuality as they are complementary colors that sit outside the traditional gendered ‘pink and blue’. The circle in the middle refers to the physical completeness and autonomy of intersexual bodies.
💛 Chromosomes and Genetics
Sex chromosome combinations are not restricted to XX and XY. An individual can have one, three, or even more sex chromosomes, or different cells could contain different chromosomes in a condition known as mosaicism. In addition, due to the action of gender-determining genes such as SRY, Wnt4, and Foxl2, the phenotype (observable traits) may be male with XX chromosomes, or the phenotype with XY chromosomes may be female.
The reproductive organs also do not necessarily differentiate according to one of the two classifications. There could be neither vas deferens nor uterus, both testes and ovaries together, difficult to distinguish external genitals, both a penis and a vagina, or changes in the external genital structure brought about with the start of secondary sexual characteristics (puberty).
For intersexual people, the sex hormones can be involved in the expression of ‘chromosomally discordant’ or ‘ambiguous’ sex specific development. However, in reality, the so-called "normal" levels of sex hormones in women and men overlap to some extent, meaning that even if levels of progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone are the same, they can fall into the "normal" range for both "biological women” and “biological men”.
There are many bodies that fall between the extremes of "female" and "male" biological characteristics, and that cannot be classified as "one or the other". Modern researchers tend to look at biological sex as more of a "spectrum" that forms a bimodal distribution, rather than a "one or the other" situation. However, bodies that cannot be easily classified are often hidden as subjects of pathogenesis and stigma.
“Isn’t it just a mutation?”
Many people don't know they are Intersex until they became adults. Even if they know, they hide themselves and their identity. Let's learn about common misunderstandings that contribute to making intersexuality invisible.
💜 An Extremely Rare Exception
People often assume that the biological sex is set for women or men, and that intersexuality is only an extremely rare exception, but according to internationally accepted research, up to 1.7% of the population are born with intersex characteristics. That means it could be 1 or 2 people per grade in a high school. So why do we only ever seem to see female or male bodies? This is because the bodies of intersex individuals are often "modified" to fit one of the two standards.
💜 Treatment and remediation
There is a common experience among people who belatedly found out about their own intersexuality. They only learn about a surgery they had undergone during the process of hospital examinations. If the intersex characteristics appear in the genital area, remediation surgery is often performed immediately after birth or in infancy, to fit the body into the standards of one “acceptable sex” without the consent of the child. Of course there are very few cases where the remediation process is done with the consent of the individual in question.
Many people think that intersexuality should of course be treated and corrected to make a body that fits into one sex category. However, except for the notion that "biological sex should be one or the other", compulsory remediation is often made even before an intersex person themself has sufficient self-consciousness to judge and choose. Rather, many people suffer from sexual and sensory problems or mental distress due to these compulsory medical measures.
These People Too!
Caster Semenya, who won gold medals in the women's 800m event at the 2012 London Olympics and 2016 Rio Olympics, did not participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This is because the World Athletics Federation took aim at Semenya and banned athletes with higher testosterone levels from participating in women's track events between 400m to 1 mile. WAF officials even described Semenya in court as a "biological male”.
Semenya is not the only one who has lived as a woman all her life but has later discovered their intersexuality and thus had their athletics career disrupted. Dora Ratjen, who set a world record in the high jump at the 1938 European Athletics Championships, got on a train shortly after the competition and was arrested by police after an attendant reported that there was a suspicious man dressed as a woman. Ratjen admitted to being intersex, was examined by numerous doctors and deprived of their medal. Ewa Klobukowska, the gold medallist in the 4×100 m relay at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, retired the following year after chromosome tests by the International Olympic Committee revealed that she was intersexual with an XX/XXY genetic mosaic. The testing incorrectly identified her as ‘not female’ and her records were erased even till this day.
Spanish hurdler María Patiño had a sex chromosome combination of XY but due to androgen insensitivity syndrome developed with female external sex characteristics and was raised as a woman. Spain's track and field officials urged Patiño to retire quietly, but Patino refused to do so, and after winning the 60m hurdles at the Spanish International Championships her diagnosis as intersex was leaked to the press. She was subsequently kicked out of the national team, the athletes residence and all her records erased. Patiño was reinstated after three years of protests and appeals, but was not selected for the Olympic team and never recovered her form.
Indian athlete Santhi Soundarajan, the first Tamil woman to win a medal at the Asian Games, attempted suicide by poisoning after being deprived of her medal for failing a “gender test”. She was also found to have complete androgen-insensitivity, but was never able to compete again. She now trains young athletes and dreams of coaching an Olympic runner.