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Only two sexes? The barefaced lie that makes intersex people like me invisible

My passport also lies because I am not only female. I am proud to be intersex, and there are more of us than people think

Sarah Graham
Saturday 17 October 2015 21:09 BST
Rainbow List judge and performance artist Ela Xora has called for an end to routine surgery on intersex babies
Rainbow List judge and performance artist Ela Xora has called for an end to routine surgery on intersex babies (Ricardo Silvestre David and Ivan Despues)

This year, for the first time ever, The Independent on Sunday is including intersex people in the Rainbow List. If you don't know what this means, you are not alone. Many people who count themselves as educated and informed haven’t got a clue what intersex is; can’t name a single famous intersex person and assume they have never met one of us in the flesh.

The now defunct Intersex Society of North America defines “intersex” as a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types. A person may also be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.

It’s not surprising so many people are ignorant about us intersex people: Our very existence has been erased since the Roman Empire. It continued in the 20th century, as doctors got their scalpels out to “normalise” our bodies. In the last fifteen years, since some of us started finding our dissident voices and protesting, doctors have tried to rebrand us and said we have “Disorders of Sexual Development (DSDs)” - to legitimize their paternalism and on-going annihilation of our beings.

This is all to keep you - the public - in the dark. And to rigidly enforce the pink and blue boxes: the boring binary, straight-laced order. But let me bring you up-to-speed. There are not only the two sexes of male and female. This is an absolute barefaced lie. Nature produces bodies on a spectrum; a continuum of possibilities.

You have met one of us somewhere, for sure. As many as 1 in 1,500 babies is born visibly intersex, while many more are born not so obviously unique and interesting to the eye.

We are nearly completely invisible in Western Societies and have virtually no legal recognition - except in progressive Germany and a very recent test case in France. In Britain, we have no recognised Human Rights to exist. We may choose one of the allowed genders, but, in reality, my passport tells a lie. I’m not only female. I am proud to be intersex.

Yet sadly, when babies are born the first question the doctor or midwife is asked is: “Is it a boy or a girl?”. This is where the trouble starts for us. The medical establishment (backed up by the legal establishment) has taken it upon themselves to immediately coerce parents to let them operate on our baby bodies - to force our natural biology into one of the two small boxes.

We hear about those performing outrageous female genital mutilation (FGM). But what about the intersex babies who are routinely operated on? There is a deafening silence. These operations are usually not in the best interest of the child’s health, future sexual function, or even fertility. Most intersex babies emerge from the operating theatre “female” because cosmetically altered girls’ bodies are easier to create. Nobody bothers to wait for the child to decide which gender and sexuality they want to be - male, female or (heaven forbid!) intersex.

It doesn’t make sense. Doctors often don’t want to “interfere” with trans kids puberty (which can be very traumatic for trans kids) or operate on them before they are 18-years-old. But, guess what? They removed my little internal testes when I was eight-years-old, telling me I was a “special little girl” and my “ovaries would become cancerous when I was a teen”. They lied. The chance of me getting cancer was less than the chance of getting breast cancer. I’ve been forced to take female hormones since I was 12-years-old.

Then there’s the challenge our bodies present to the Church. Who do you think I should marry as an XY female who was born with internal testes? I may look outwardly very girly and female. But I feel psychologically intersex and find all kinds of people attractive. For me, the heart is the most important human organ.

It is so important that The IoS, and you readers, start recognising intersex people, educating others and speaking up for us. Demand our rights to autonomy and the freedom to self-define. As Rainbow List judge Ela Xora says in her current exhibition: “Prime Minister: No More Scars”, the surgeries must stop. It’s inhumane to treat us like this. We need increased visibility and your support to make this happen.

Globally, very few intersex people are Out. We are silenced by our trauma and trapped under layers of stifling shame. It is not very safe to speak out in the mainstream. Either there is a conspiracy of silence, or occasionally there is a witch-hunt in the world of sport (see Caster Semenya). So Coming Out as intersex in the 21st Century is still enormously challenging - especially for those, like me, who were lied to by doctors and operated on against our wishes (and without even our parents’ informed consent). We struggle to feel entitled to live in our mutilated bodies. Many of us kill ourselves. I’ve battled against suicidal thoughts for years.

Visibility really helps. I told my story for the first time in The Independent, back in 2006. I’m very fortunate to have good loving friends and a supportive family. I survived an addictions rock bottom in 2001 and have been lucky to be able to afford a lot of private therapy. Plus, I am a therapist myself.

If you don’t know anybody else who is intersex, you now know me. Please take a minute to research and nominate some of us for the Rainbow List 2015. Holly Greenberry and other women, from Intersex UK, spoke out in The IoS in 2013. This year, I’ve started doing stand-up comedy and to my knowledge, I’m the world’s first intersex comic. I am happy to represent my beautiful, diverse, wise, spiritually-gifted tribe until many more can Come Out and join in waving the Rainbow flag with pride.

Sarah Graham is a therapist, addictions expert and stand-up comic. She is also an Out intersex woman & refuses to fit into society's pink and blue boxes. She is donating her fee from this article to Intersex UK

To nominate someone for this year’s Independent on Sunday Rainbow List, please visit

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