Intersex devbio, gender variance, and sex essentialists

Dr. Cary Costello has a piece up about the interactions between intersex folks, sex essentialist/trans exclusionary feminists, and gender variance.

It’s a nice piece because it demonstrates the impact of sex & gender assignment and how this procedure is generally undisturbed upon the discovery of intersex developmental biology–the intersex individual is often still given a binary sex assignment, and this generally remains true across the world. If the medical establishment ever pulls its head out of its ass and stops doing this to intersex newborns, trans feminism (including my own) will have to account for persons who are assigned intersex at birth or risk being obsolete, in addition to the very notions of “cis” and “trans” not mapping neatly onto intersex experiences.

Are Trans Communities Losing Intersex Allies in the TERF Wars?

By Cary Gabriel Costello, PhD

Recently I spent several days in a public internet group for “gender critical” people, after a few intersex friends voiced some positive things about this line of thinking. As an intersex individual who gender transitioned from the sex he was assigned at birth, I was puzzled and concerned by this development. I’d read in trans writing that “gender critical” feminists were actively transphobic–yet here were some intersex advocates excited by what they were saying. So I wanted to go have a look for myself. Were “gender critical” feminists in fact good allies for the intersex community? What would it mean for trans communities if this were so?

Intersex People Critique the Insistence that Sex is a Binary

Simply on the face of it, from an intersex perspective the phrase “gender critical” sounds appealing. Advocates for the intersex community are extremely critical of the way sex and gender are understood and enforced in contemporary Western societies. We live with a social ideology of binary sex that conflicts with the biological reality that sex is a spectrum, and many people are born with bodies that lie between the male and female ideals described in textbooks.

It’s worth noting this observation is anathema to TERFs. Dr. Costello later demonstrates how TERFs handwave sex spectra by dismissing intersex development as a “disorder,” not something that “counts.” And they are invested in doing so because their sex-caste analysis operates from the assumption of bodies-as-one-immutable-characteristic.

The textbooks say “men have XY chromosomes and women have XX,” but there are XX men and XY women, and people with many other sex genotypes (XXY, Xo, and XX/XY mosaics to name just some). Textbooks proclaim “men have a penis and scrotum, while women have a clitoris, labia and vagina,” but many people are born with an intermediate phalloclitoris and labioscrotum. Children are born with a phallus and a uterus, with vulvas but internal testes, with intermediate ovotestes, with external testes but no penis, and with other variant genital configurations.

Sex is a spectrum of variations, in humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. But societies cut that spectrum up into socially-recognized sexes, just as they slice the color spectrum up into named colors. Cultures in different global locations and different historical periods have sliced the sex spectrum up in contrasting ways, just as they’ve named differing numbers of colors when looking at the rainbow. While other social sex systems recognize three, four, or five sexes, contemporary Western societies generally only recognize two: male and female. And people are deeply invested in the ideology that there are just two sexes–it’s been embedded in religion (“Male and female created He them”); it’s graven into our birth certificates and a thousand other forms of ID listing “M” or “F”; it shapes our built environment with bathrooms and locker rooms and the like divided by binary gender; and it underlies our understanding of sexuality, family, and intimacy. So when, inevitably, intersex children are born, it’s treated as a crisis.

Remember this point: “it’s treated as a crisis.” A crisis that TERFs maintain, if sometimes only inadvertently, through their sex essentialist campaigning.

It’s hard, growing up intersex in a society that enforces a sex binary, medically, socially and legally. We are subjected as children to surgeries meant to “normalize” our bodies, with lifelong ramifications that can be quite negative (loss of genital sensation, loss of fertility, loss of a source of natural sex hormones, and sometimes assignment to a sex with which we do not grow up to identify). Often we are not told the truths about our own intersex status. Our bodies are treated as shameful, and we are taught to keep our variations secret, closeted. We may find it hard to form relationships, being told both that our “conditions” will drive people away and must be hidden, but also that if we do not disclose them to sexual partners we are deceitful.

Yep, that sounds familiar.

Read more here.



  1. says

    Yep, that does sound familiar. My late wife was intersex. She didn’t even tell me until about 6 months into our relationship because she was scared to do so. (Previous to that, she only disclosed that she could not have children.)

  2. colinday says

    There may well be intersex-antagonistic gender-critical feminists, but I did not see any mentioned by name in Dr. Costello’s article.

  3. Siobhan says

    Content Notice: Trans-antagonism, intersex erasure


    There may well be intersex-antagonistic gender-critical feminists, but I did not see any mentioned by name in Dr. Costello’s article.

    The group they referenced was a Facebook group, so no, the participants of that group are not named. However, hyperlinks are spread throughout the article which do illustrate intersex erasure from other sex essentialist TERFs who do make those arguments, this one being the most comprehensive I could find:

  4. colinday says

    I haven’t read all of that article, but I have comments. Some feminist claim that the patriarchy oppresses women for their reproductive capabilities, but those capabilities themselves are not patriarchal (nor do they rely on sex being a binary). Also, did Lorde include language as a tool that the masters use?