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Intersex Facts*

What does intersex mean? 

Intersex people are born with sex characteristics (that may include genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies.

Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all.

According to experts, between 0.05% and 1.7% of the population is born with intersex traits – the upper estimate is similar to the number of red haired people.

Being intersex relates to biological sex characteristics, and is distinct from a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. An intersex person may be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or asexual, and may identify as female, male, both or neither.

Because their bodies are seen as different, intersex children and adults are often stigmatized and subjected to multiple human rights violations, including violations of their rights to health and physical integrity, to be free from torture and ill-treatment, and to equality and nondiscrimination.


Physical Integrity

It has become common practice to subject intersex children to unnecessary surgical and other procedures for the purpose of trying to make their appearance conform to binary sex stereotypes.

These often irreversible procedures can cause permanent infertility, pain, incontinence, loss of sexual sensation, and lifelong mental suffering, including depression. Regularly performed without the full, free and informed consent of the person concerned, who is frequently too young to be part of the decision-making, these procedures may violate their rights to physical integrity, to be free from torture and ill-treatment, and to live free from harmful practices.

Such procedures are frequently justified on the basis of cultural and gender norms and discriminatory beliefs about intersex people and their integration into society.


Discrimination

Intersex persons are often subjected to discrimination and abuse if it becomes known that they are intersex, or if they are perceived not to conform to gender norms. Anti-discrimination laws do not typically ban discrimination against intersex persons, leaving them vulnerable to discriminatory practices in a range of settings, including access to health services, education, public services, employment and sports.

Some intersex people also face barriers and discrimination if they wish to or need to amend sex markers on birth certificates and official documents.

Intersex athletes face a specific set of obstacles. There have been several cases of female intersex athletes who have been disqualified from sports competitions on the basis of their intersex traits. However, being intersex of itself does not entail better performance, whereas other physical variations that do affect performance, such as height and muscle development, are not subjected to such scrutiny and restrictions.


*Source: Free and Equal United Nations for LGBT Equality. Intersex Fact Sheet. Accessed December 3, 2015.

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