Battle of the sexes

Intersexuality is often left out of the queer discourse. Intersex activist Gavan Coleman talks to D. Joyce-Ahearne about the spectrum of sex.

indepth1A key tool in any power dynamic is the authority to name. To define is to create an image, to identify its place in relation to everything else. Regardless of how we choose to identify, how we are defined by others, by those with the power to name, by those who benefit from the status quo, will play just as major, if not more, of a role in the freedom we have in our day to day lives.

We exist in a world that operates on the principle (or rather assumption, or truer yet lie) that sex is binary. You are male or you are female. We understand two images of sex. Man and woman. Adam and Eve.

Up until very recently, these images were more strongly fortified and separated by ideas of gender and orientation. Eve was female (her sex). Eve was a woman (her gender, not the same thing as biological sex). And Eve was attracted exclusively to Adams (Eve’s orientation). Adams were male, they were men and they only liked to sleep with Eves. These, we were told, are what men and women are. And as men and women are the only types of people, then these are what humans are. Anything else is not human then, is not normal, is weird, is queer.

But Adams don’t just like women and Eves don’t just like men. We (or at least a lot of us) now recognise a spectrum of orientation. We are happy to recognise anyone anywhere on this spectrum as human, as normal. Because it’s normal to have an orientation.

We (less of us) recognise that gender is also a spectrum, and a constructed one at that. Whereas sex is a biological reality (we can biologically be identified as having a sex) and orientation is a mental reality (you know who you want to sleep with), gender is an odd little tag that doesn’t really clarify anything in terms of who we really are and yet “facilitates” most of our daily goings-on.

Gender is being told to pick pink or blue. Gender defines whether or not we’re “meant” to cry, cook, change tires, shag men, shag women. Pink or blue. We don’t use the jacks or the dressing room according to orientation or indeed sex, but according to gender.

What is intersex? 

Biological sex is not binary. There are not just male men and female women. Male, as a biological category, means carrying XY chromosomes and having male gonads and genitalia. Female means XX chromosomes and female gonads and genitalia.

Intersex is a very general term for anyone whose genitals or gonads (the organs that produce sex cells: ovaries in women and testes in men) are neither typically male nor female, or for someone who is neither XX nor XY chromosomally. The two are not mutually exclusive, that is to say that an intersex person could have XY chromosomes (typically male), appear typically male in their genitalia, and have ovaries.

Intersex can range from true hermaphrodites (a person born with both ovarian and testicular tissue) to having an extra X chromosome (Klinefelter syndrome). There are a myriad of intersex sexes, and not all are agreed upon as being intersex.

Essentially, intersex is a category for every biological sex that cannot be defined as either XX female with typical female genitalia and gonads (vagina and ovaries) or XY male with typical male genitalia and gonads (penis and testes). Intersex is everything that falls between those two sexes.

This in itself is a derogatory and unsatisfactory definition, defining intersex in terms of the “established” sexes. Language broadly ignores the reality of a biological sexual spectrum.

It’s a linguistic minefield. We don’t have the words to contend with the sexual reality around us because it’s been hidden away. Making the reality of intersex manifest is so incredibly hard because language doesn’t facilitate it. There’s a lot of tripping over words. The mistake is that we have ignored reality because we don’t have the language and instead accept the reality language has given us.

The reality

Sex is presented to us a fixed binary: the original binary, the first us and them, the first oppressor and oppressed. Adam and Eve.

“And then the snake maybe, the snake is us. The human mind, if you’re really unevolved, and I don’t want to call [people] stupid, but the simple-minded person maybe goes ‘Adam: man’, ‘Eve: woman’, ‘snake: all those weirdo queers’. I think the only queer thing in the world is this misinformation of fucking reality.”

So says Gavan Coleman, an intersex rights campaigner based in Dublin. Coleman was born with XXY chromosomes, meaning that he possesses an extra X chromosome. He identifies as intersex but intersex is not a recognised reality in Ireland.

If you are intersex you don’t exist on your own passport. You don’t exist on your census return. You must identify as something you’re not. If I (a typical XY male) apply for a passport with a sex that is not my own they won’t give me one. But intersex people are forced to put down a sex they are not. “We’re not recognised,” says Coleman. “That’s the reality. Talk about human rights? I’m better off saying I’m a male.”

Coleman has contended with society’s unawareness of intersexuality his entire life. “The confusion of when you mention gender and sex. When I say that I’m intersex, or when I say I’m XXY, or when I say I don’t produce testosterone and that I have to take injections, immediately people go ‘What? Are you gay?’”

If our views on the spectrum of orientation have become more accepting in the last 50 years, our views on the spectrum of sex are, by and large, nonexistent. Solidarity, even from those who might be able to empathise with discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, has not been forthcoming.

“The LGBTQI community [the I is for intersex] is what it is, most people just hear LGBT. They stop there because they don’t even want the inclusion of queer people, even though they were queer years ago. It’s unbelievable how it happens.  The ‘I’ is not really mentioned at all because they’re like ‘What the hell is that?’ And it’s so ignorant.”

Intersexuality is ignored for a number of reasons. It’s quite possibly the last, and most important, hurdle in the sexual revolution. We might be accepting of orientation, we might begin to question gender, but are we willing to bring sex back to the drawing board? If the original binary is questioned, if such an established “fact” is shown to be scientifically and empirically incorrect, then what else could come tumbling down?

Intersex and medicine

It is very difficult, in fact next to impossible, to live as intersex in Ireland today. You simply have to conform to male or female, you have to accept one of the two sexes on offer, on offer from society, but ultimately, from the state.

Historically, newborn intersex babies were “assigned” a gender with “corrective” surgery to their “atypical” genitalia. The decision, that of the parents, was often taken with little information from the medical community. Though parents make the decision with their child’s welfare at heart, and the doctors themselves obviously want healthy babies, “corrective” surgery has been the medical community’s only offered “solution”, and often one that has often been pressed upon people.

Surgery, as a response to intersexuality, tries to avoid the difficulties an intersex person will face in life as the situation stands. Though the medical community has tried to offer a “solution” that avoids these difficulties, in recognising the status quo, they actually reinforce it. “Corrective” surgery still occurs, and is the state-sponsored surgical policing of sex. It is sex reassignment surgery on babies without their consent.

Coleman says that the medical community is failing people today. “Intersex today is considered by doctors and the medical community as a Disorders of Sexual Development (DSD). Another disorder.” Follow up care for intersex children, he says, is non-existent, though this is true of many medical issues as children move out of the bracket of paediatrics.

The information needed to offer real help to intersex people is not there as far as the medical community is concerned. But then it never will be unless follow up is provided. Coleman says that there is such a strong community of intersex people who have already gone through “corrective” surgery, the system and the total absence of follow up care, that intersex children would have a system of support to rely on without having to identify as male or female.  Coleman believes that “it’s not to change the body but to change the mind. Imagine if we could all just change our minds and allow everybody to be?”

“Babies tomorrow, I would love if they were just born and looked after. Simply. And the parents be given various types of information and possibilities of facts to research themselves and a good healthy relationship with their doctor instead of ‘Don’t talk about this because you’re probably one in a million.’ That’s the reality. I’d love a real understanding of the human diversity.”


Unfortunately, for intersex people to be able to enjoy the quality of life that males and females currently have, a complete overhaul of how we think has to occur, one that would have repercussions for all of society.

In terms of providing for intersex children, teachers from playschool up would have to be retrained to engage with an incredibly varied amount of issues that would arise if children in class could openly be intersex, issues they currently have to come to terms with in isolation. “Have to be,” says Coleman, “and will be because it has to happen, because it’s happening. It’s an upheaval because we’ve been lied to for too long.”

“We need on the next census form many more options. Including for transsexuals, and including people who are neither transsexual nor intersex but simply can’t put male or female, for whatever reason. Respect the individual.”

From November 2013, Germany now recognises “indeterminate” as a sex option on birth certificates. Indeterminate is, again, a problematic term. By definition, it doesn’t clarify anything. Currently, intersex is used as a catch all but just as we have terms for male and females, so too are their names for the sexes that compose the spectrum that is today just lumped together under intersex. Why shouldn’t birth certs have options for every sex?

Last year, Sweden introduced hen, a gender-neutral pronoun to be used instead of “he” or “she”, which Coleman reckons, is progress of sorts. “Sex in language, biggest disaster ever and that’s how they keep it concrete in the language. This is male, this is female. Very rare is something neutral.Though the pronoun is proving a success, just like the category of “indeterminate”, it raises the issue of what direction intersex activism should go.


Intersex people are not sexually “neutral”, why then should they use a neutral pronoun? If gender neutral language is just adopted by intersex people then it is useless. The question is should every sex get their own pronoun or should we abolish he and she in favour of one all-encompassing hen? Should the full spectrum of sex be recognised or should we do away with sex as a category worth talking about? A wealth of diverse mini-narratives or universalism?

If the battle for equal rights for all orientations is a hard one, a world in which all the sexes are equal seems incomprehensible, and it is incomprehensible in the discourse and language of today. Females, a sex who have always been known about, still don’t have equality. Intersex people are fighting for recognition, before rights even come into it. Orientation, gender, sex are going to be battlegrounds for the foreseeable future and Coleman spots a recurring cause:

“A lot of it is to do with the masculinity of the world. It’s been led by masculine males. A lot of men would be emancipated if they were just allowed be themselves and stopped being called gay for wearing a stripy jacket.”

The first step, as always, is creating a discourse. But we need a language suitable to do it. We need to remap sexuality in language. Coleman summed up the current situation with his expectations for the article. “I will be disappointed, regardless of what you write even if it’s amazing. Because whatever you write won’t be the reality.”

D. Joyce-Ahearne

D is former Contributing Editor of Trinity News and Trinity Graduate.