Thursday, May 14, 2009

On Being Called a "True Hermaphrodite"

I was born with an ovotestis, which is a gonad that is intermediate between an ovary and a testis. The medical terminology for a person born with an ovotestis is "true hermaphrodite." Today I'm going to post on what I hate about that term, and what I don't.

The Reality of Intersexuality

The reason people with ovotestes were termed "true hermaphrodites" by doctors was explicitly to categorize all other intersex people as not "truly" intersexed. Most intersex people were medically deemed to be "pseudohermaphrodites." This was based on an fundamental (and, to my mind, fundamentally evil) impulse to erase our existance.

The medical "logic" basically went like this: nature makes things male and female. Laypeople might doubt this when they see a person with intermediate genitals, but doctors know better. With Science they can tell the "true sex" of these people, and eliminate the challenge to sex dyadism.

It's a strange exercise, looking at people whose bodies are neither male nor female, and deciding you can tell what they "really are." Let's say you're looking at someone who has breasts, a menstrual period, and a penis. What are they "really"? You can come up with a rule and apply it, but that rule will be arbitrary. It's just like looking at the color purple and saying, "Purple is not a real color, so this must be either blue or red. I have a Scientific Rule I can apply to determine whether this is blue or red." Sure, you could create a rule, and apply it consistently, but that does not eliminate the fact that purple exists as a color people experience.

This belief that intersex people "really didn't exist" when they were standing right there was like some oddly theoretical genocide. At the time that the terms "male pseudohermaphrodite" and "female pseudohermaphrodite" were coined, sex assignment surgery had yet to be developed, so it was a purely verbal move to erase us.

Harmful Practices

Today, sex assignment surgery does exist. And the persistance of a medical belief that doctors can run tests on an intersex baby and determine hir "real sex" has harmful effects. Children are subjected to profoundly lifealtering surgeries without their consent. Imagine if someone cut your penis off without your consent, or removed your ovaries and chance for fertility. . . and when you cried, "What did you do to me!?" they said, "Oh, our tests showed you didn't need those."

Intersex advocates of every stripe are vehemently opposed to infant sex assignment surgery. They say, we say, that no surgery should be performed until a child grows up and can say what surgery (if any) zie wants. The foundational principle should be an individual's gender identity. A baby with CAH can have a penis, ovaries and uterus. If that baby grows up and identifies as a boy, then he may choose to have his uterus and ovaries removed. If the baby grows up and identifies as a girl, she may choose to have sex assignment surgery to change her penis into a clitoris.

Or how about this? The child could grow up with a gender identity that matches hir body. Zie could say, "I'm not 'really a boy' or 'really a girl,' I'm really intersex, and I don't want any surgery. My body is fine, lovely, just how it is, thanks."

As it now stands, that option isn't on the medical table. Doctors are still assuming that all of us must have a true sex, or "best sex" in the terms of the day, and that they are heros because they can fix us.

The Term "True Hermphrodite"

I hate the term "true hermphrodite" for two reasons. One, it deems most intersex people "false," not really intersex, which both leads to harmful practices and undermines people's ability to identify with their bodies as intersex. And secondly, it gives me some sort of privilege I don't want. I'm deemed the "real intersex," I'm "true." I certainly don't see myself as "more intersexed" than other intersex people, and I don't want to be seen as special or better.

The reason I'm termed a "true hermaphrodite" is because the arbitrary rule that doctors came up with when they developed the terms "true hermaphrodite," "male pseudohermaphrodite" and "female pseudohermphrodite" was that true sex was determined by gonads. A person with testes is "really" male, even if she has breasts, labia, clitoris, and vagina, even if she was raised female, wears dresses, identifies as a heterosexual female, and is married to a man. A person with with ovaries is "really" female, even if he has a penis, scrotum, and just won the Mr. Olympus bodybuilding contest. Only people with one ovary and one testis, or intermediate gonads, ovotestes, are "really" intersex. This rule is arbitrary and says nothing about our lived experience.

So I hate the "true" and "pseudo" terms for classifying intersex people. On the other hand, I, personally, don't object to being called a "hermaphrodite." I realize this is a very atypical position among intersex people. Most intersex people who are politically aware hate being called hermaphrodites because of the baggage the term carries. It evokes greek mythology, and we're not creatures of myth. It is used a lot by fetishists, who get off on the idea of having sex with a body that has breasts and a penis, and we're not volunteering to be sex objects for every kinkster out there. I agree that this baggage is a real problem. But I myself don't blame the term. I like that it shows how we've been around forever, and that in some societies, we've been considered specially blessed by the gods, rather than freaks.

In any case, I don't identify with the term "true hermaphrodite," and always put it in quotes. I'm intersexed.


  1. Well reading this has brought to light to my life thinking that there were one or two ovotestis that I was aware of not saying there weren't any at all. I for one do not like to be called hermaphrodite just intersex thank you very much. I have lived stealth for 36 years, too many emotional break downs and medical procedures forced me to come out of hiding. Knowing what I know and have lived with all these years I am happy to say I am happy of who I am and thankful my mother said no to surgery.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and someday I could do the same for you.

  2. Thank you so much, Shauna, and much strength to you.

  3. Thank you from one Intersexed person to another for speaking out. ***HUGS***

  4. As I was searching for information concerning S. African runner Caster Semenya I found your site. Thank you for not only explaining the nuances and connotations concerning the terminology, but for providing a personal explanation.

    Thank you!

  5. hi thanks for this site its awsome,i know im intersexed ,but its taken years for my brain to adjust after so many lies,that i have pcos and that nothings wrong with me its done its evil damgage,doctors well respected endos,have lied to me,but we all know somewhere in our soul we r intersexed,even though we are lied to we just know,i have a ovateste,and raised female,i still havent had the courtesy of a doctor to explain and tell me the truth,wonder when i will b told in a civilised manner my beautiful complex self lol anyway cheers.

  6. I am just a curious woman looking for knowledge of what I don't know. Thanks for the wonderful information and respectful tone. Our world is better with people like you in it! Keep up the great work.

  7. thanks for giving me hope that one day my son will feel the same as you...he is one year old and he have one test and one ovotestis ...I dont know how to deside for his future and what to do..please help me and tell me what i should do and what is better for my child...

    1. to anonymous: let your child decide who they are when they are older. Don't subject them to irreversible surgery/hormone treatments that could be completely the wrong ones/have so many horrible physical side effects!

  8. I spent a confused time until aged 52 and having been kicked out of the local swimming pool because of my chest I looked into it all and found a mosaic contrast between my butt and my dick ... then I saw the scar! No more secrets more lies!
    The past is gone for ever but at least I can live in truth from now on! They say that's a one in 25000 shot! We are all hupersons really! Respect. Sundance Sugarlilly.