Are Transgenders Born with Both Parts?

In ancient Greece, people worshiped the God Hermaphroditus, said to be the child of the God and Goddess of sexuality, one of the winged Gods Erotes. Born with both male and female genitalia, Hermaphroditus was God of hermaphrodites and effeminates.

It was from this God that we got the term Hermaphrodite. Originally, the term meant “person partaking of the attributes of both sexes,” but in the century since it developed instead into a slur, a cruel insult used to degrade those who don’t act or look stereotypically masculine or feminine. It’s also a misleading term; true hermaphroditism doesn’t exist in humans. There has never been, and scientifically cannot be, a human with functioning male and female genitalia together.

In the 60’s, a new term took the place of hermaphrodite. Intersex, first coined by Richard Goldschmidt, covers a great myriad of conditions, ranging from those like Clitoromegaly and a micropenis, which are conditions that affect the outward appearance of a person's genitalia, as well as those such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which is an insensitivity to one of the “male” hormones, androgen. People with AIS are often born with no cervix and internal testes but can appear from the outside to be typical “girls”. Some conditions are entirely hormonal, with little to no physical tells prior to puberty.

My own experiences of being an intersex person

When I was in middle school, my periods started. They came sporadically, and they came hard. One time might last a few days with nothing but a spot of blood and slight discomfort; then the next might come three months later and end up being a month straight of excruciating pain. It wasn’t until much later, after years of being told things would eventually level out on their own, that I asked for blood tests that revealed the cause: polycystic ovarian syndrome, a hormonal condition that causes high androgen levels in otherwise normal “females”.

At that point, I had long since realized I was transgender. I’d started socially transitioning, and had been out to friends, teachers, classmates, and select family members for years. But upon receiving my diagnosis, I was suddenly unsure. Was I really trans? Or was it just because my hormones were closer to that of a man than a woman?

But one’s gender identity and one’s physical sex aren’t as connected as some people assume. Just like how someone who is typically female can be a guy, so can someone whose body strays towards the middle of the sex spectrum identify at one end or the other.

After years on forums and message boards, I’ve come to realize that the frequency of trans identities among the intersex is no higher or lower than that among those with physically typical sexes. Many intersex people continue to live their lives as the sex they were raised as, or the one their parents had them converted to; sex change surgeries on infants is an extremely common practice, though it’s slowly dying out.

Should we “Fix” intersex children?

When a child is born outwardly intersex, many doctors suggest doing surgery to change the infant’s body to fit into what people consider normal. More often than not, this means changing them to be female; creating a penis is much harder than clipping a small one-off or removing a baby’s undeveloped testicles.

But this can have a lot of problems. What if the parents chose a sex for their child, and they chose wrong?

A friend of mine has lived this very scenario. Born intersex, his parents submitted him to sex change surgery, converting his body into what they decided it should be: a girl. But as he grew up, it became more and more clear that he is, in fact, a boy. Had his parents not forced him into surgery as an infant, he would have had a relatively simple time of transitioning to fully male. He had had undescended testicles which had been clipped out of his tiny body before he could even hold his head up. Without them, he’s had to undergo a lifetime of testosterone injections to allow his body to develop how it might have naturally. He’d had a micropenis which was removed; this not only damaged the nerves in his groin but resulted in a need to remove flesh from his leg to create grafts, giving him back the very thing he had originally been born with.

Cases like his are far from rare. When a parent decides whether their child should be a boy or a girl, there’s at least a 50% chance that they’re going to choose wrong. In light of these statistics, as well as the physical and psychological damage done to a child who’s put through elective surgeries that young, the amount of sex conversion surgeries done on intersex children has been steadily dropping.

Intersex and transgender

About 1 in 1,500 children are born with an intersex condition; if you do the math, that means that there are approximately 217,133 intersex people in the United States. According to a report done by the Williams Institute in 2011, about 3,908,400 people in the US are identified as trans. Many intersex people are identified as trans, but not all. Many trans people are intersex, but not most of them.

So, are transgender people born with both parts? No, no one is; true hermaphrodites don’t exist. But the intersex and trans communities are two sides of a Venn diagram, layering over each other, intertwined but still separate, still whole in and of themselves.