Intersex FAQs

We've put together some frequently asked questions that offer a brief overview about what intersex is, including a note about 'Intersex & Gender Identity" and why language and words matter when we speak and write about intersex - even 'as gaeilge'.

This video was created during OII Europe's Second Intersex Community Event and Conference in Copenhagen in February 2018.

Text by Mathilde and other participants of the Community Event. Narrated by Mathilde.

Filmed and edited by Irene Kuzemko.



Intersex and Gender Identity


The 'I' in LGBTQI+ is Intersex but not all intersex people identify under the LGBTQI+ umbrella. 

This paragraph from our friends at Intersex Human Rights Australia is a great explainer...

All available information suggests that intersex people have diverse identities. Many intersex people are heterosexual, while many are not, and most intersex people identify with sex assigned at birth (sometimes termed cisgender). This discussion about identities can obscure a deeper issue: because intersex is about physical characteristics, it includes infants and children who do not have agency to express an identity. Care needs to be taken to acknowledge this when talking about intersex people.

Why words matter

Language is powerful - knowing the right words to use when talking to someone, or talking about them, is not only respectful, it can also be empowering.  However, incorrect language use can be harmful and hurtful because it can cause stigma and shame.


Intersex refers to a difference, not a deformity 

Intersex is a word we use - a lot. 

Intersex is an umbrella term that includes the many ways that the human body's sex characteristics may vary - it reflects "biological diversity" (IHRA, 2009)

In some instances we say people with Variations of Sex Characteristics (VSC) and at other times we use the words people with Atypical Sex Characteristics.  But intersex is the word/term we use most.    Using the proper language when we talk about people, their bodies and their experiences is very important to us and we are committed to speaking and writing about intersex as respectfully, and correctly, as possible.      

As our attitudes, thinking and knowledge changes, our choice of words and use of language should too.  Our friends at interACT - Advocates for Intersex Youth explain why some terms that have been used in the past were problematic.  

Is intersex the same thing as being a “hermaphrodite?”

No. “Hermaphrodite” should never be used to describe an intersex person. Some intersex people have reclaimed this word for themselves, but it is usually considered a slur. There are many ways to have an intersex body, but it is not possible for one person to have both a fully developed penis and vagina.

The “h word” comes from mythology. It might suggest that intersex people are monsters, or not of this world. Many intersex people still see this slur used in their medical records.

Is intersex the same thing as “Disorder of Sex Development?”

“Disorder” or “difference of sex development” (DSD) is still a common medical term for intersex traits. Many intersex people reject the term “DSD” because it supports the idea that their bodies are wrong, or up to doctors to “fix.” Advocates in the United States often bring up the fact that until 1973, being gay was considered a mental disorder. Many natural human differences have been framed as medical problems, until communities fought for acceptance. interACT generally does not use the term DSD. See interACT’s statement on DSD terminology.


What is intersex in Irish?

Intersex as gaeilge = idirghnéas

Our PI, Tanya Ní Mhuirthile contributed to An Foclóir Aiteach/The Queer Dictionary

It was a collaboration between the Union of Students of Ireland (USI), Transgender Equality Network of Ireland (TENI) and BelongTo (LGBT youth organisation).

It was launched in DCU in March 2018. 

This is a wonderful resource not just for the LGBTQI+ community but also for the Irish speaking community everywhere.  A full PDF version of An Foclóir Aiteach is available here. 


Intersex and Diverse International Experiences

We are acutely aware of the fact that being intersex is a diverse experience within and across global societies and cultures.  We appreciate that many commonalities are shared within the global intersex community such as a committment to human rights and a belief that intersex surgery for cosmetic/cultural reasons should stop. 

We are also aware, however, of the nuanced experiences that intersex people have and how these may be defined by different cultural contexts.  Being intersex in one country may be profoundly different compared to being intersex in another, especially when issues such as oppressive political regimes are considered or in countries where women's and children's rights are contested. 

We respect the diversity of the global intersex community, in fact we see it as a strength and a powerful force that can be used to effect change.  We believe our learning becomes richer when it is infused with multiple perspectives - each should be equal.

Click here to listen to, and watch, Joaneva from Nairobi talk about her experience of being intersex in Africa 

I was literally told 'You're shaming us by going public.  Push this aside'.  Being a woman with MRKH in an African setting is almost like a death sentence.  Basically, you're a nobody unless you can bring a child into this world.  I was lucky that I met a doctor who said 'Let's do an ultrasound'.  Otherwise, I would never have found out.

Developing our website is an ongoing endeavour and we will add more material about international perspectives soon.  We'll let you know on Twitter.