Intersexuality and the Law: Why Sex Matters

Intersexuality and the Law: Why Sex Matters

Intersexuality and the Law: Why Sex Matters

Intersexuality and the Law: Why Sex Matters


Winner of the 2013 Bullough Award presented by the Foundation for the Scientific Study of Sexuality

The term “intersex” evokes diverse images, typically of people who are both male and female or neither male nor female. Neither vision is accurate. The millions of people with an intersex condition, or DSD (disorder of sex development), are men or women whose sex chromosomes, gonads, or sex anatomy do not fit clearly into the male/female binary norm. Until recently, intersex conditions were shrouded in shame and secrecy: many adults were unaware that they had been born with an intersex condition and those who did know were advised to hide the truth. Current medical protocols and societal treatment of people with an intersex condition are based upon false stereotypes about sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability, which create unique challenges to framing effective legal claims and building a strong cohesive movement.

In Intersexuality and the Law, Julie A. Greenberg examines the role that legal institutions can play in protecting the rights of people with an intersex condition. She also explores the relationship between the intersex movement and other social justice movements that have effectively utilized legal strategies to challenge similar discriminatory practices. She discusses the feasibility of forming effective alliances and developing mutually beneficial legal arguments with feminists, LGBT organizations, and disability rights advocates to eradicate the discrimination suffered by these marginalized groups.


Media interest in intersexuality has blossomed over the past decade. Stories about people with an intersex condition have been the focus of dozens of books, movies, television dramas, and documentaries. Similarly, in academia, intersexuality has moved from being a relatively obscure topic, examined in a handful of medical journals, to becoming the central topic of numerous books and articles in a variety of disciplines, including psychology, history, anthropology, and medical ethics.

Intersexuality has also become a hot topic in legal circles. In the past ten years, more than a hundred legal articles and books have included a discussion of intersexuality. Most of these publications do not focus on the issues that have a direct effect on the lives of people with an intersex condition. Instead, most of these publications have used the existence of intersexuality to support the expansion of rights of other sexual minorities, including members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) communities.

Understanding how the issues that are critical to people with an intersex condition can be conflated with the issues affecting other people who challenge sex and gender norms requires a basic understanding of the nature of intersexuality. The meaning of the term intersex has varied and the issue is still a topic of sometimes heated discussion. Although doctors and activists in the intersex community continue to debate exactly what conditions qualify as “intersex,” I am using the term in its broadest sense to include anyone with a congenital condition whose sex chromosomes, gonads, or internal or external sexual anatomy do not fit clearly into the binary male/female norm. Some intersex conditions involve an inconsistency between a person’s internal and external sexual features. For example, some people with an intersex condition may have female appearing external genitalia, no internal female organs, and testicles. Other people with an intersex condition may be born with genitalia that do not appear to be clearly male or female. For example, a girl may be born with a larger than average clitoris and no vagina. Similarly, a boy . . .

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