Suggestions for Writing about Intersex

1. Take what intersex people have to say about their own lives and bodies into account. Many times the experiences and knowledge of people who have intersex conditions are undervalued because others (such as doctors or scholars) are believed to be the experts. Seriously consider what intersex people have to say and how they might also have expert knowledge to share and that their expertise might, in some ways, be deeper than that of professionals.

2. Think critically about all texts that deal with intersex. Ask yourself questions about what investments authors or speakers have and where their knowledge comes from. Do not assume that people with intersex conditions are inherently biased or that doctors and/or scholars are completely objective. Whenever possible, take arguments on their own merits.

3. Present intersex people as human. Sometimes writers discuss conditions and procedures as somehow separate from real people’s lives. Try to remember the very human side of intersex. In the same vein, try to remember that a person is not merely his or her genes, chromosomes, hormones or genitals but is much richer and more complex.

4. Represent the richness and complexity of intersex people’s lives. There are many different intersex conditions that produce many different experiences. When we layer social categories such as race and class on to those experiences, we get innumerable perspectives. Keep this in mind and understand that in the same way we wouldn’t expect one woman to speak for all women, one intersex person cannot possibly speak for everyone with an intersex condition. Also keep in mind that for many intersex people their condition is a very small part of their lives.

5. Be attentive to the differences between intersex issues and other issues. Sometimes there are important parallels between intersex and issues facing other groups, but make sure you understand the important differences. For example, although some people with intersex conditions identify as trans (in the same way some non-intersex people do), most of them don’t. Given this, conflating intersex issues and experiences with trans issues and experiences is problematic.

6. Try not to use intersex and intersex people merely as examples. Sometimes when we write we struggle to find that perfect example that illustrates our point and will convince our readers. As writers, we use examples all the time. It’s important, however, to think about the consequences of using people’s lives as examples. If you’re writing about intersex, try to show your audience that you are knowledgable about and sensitive to intersex people’s experiences, problems, and desires and not only interested in them because they help you make your argument.

7. Think carefully about your language. Language is a dynamic creature that changes in response to social forces and carries connotations writers need to be aware of at all times. In the same way many writers now avoid sexist language or language that refers to outdated racial categories or labels, think carefully about how you describe intersex people and their conditions. If you choose to use words such as “hermaphrodite” make certain you consider their effect on your audience and your project. Be aware that intersex leaders have been working for years to eliminate the word “hermaphrodite” from medical nomenclature, particularly because of the negative effect the word has on doctors, parents, and peers who interact with people who have intersex conditions.

8. Conduct thorough research by using a variety of sources. Intersex issues and intersex people are written about in a variety of venues from medical journals to popular magazines and websites; make use of the plethora of sources available.

9. Be aware of when a source was published and cite all material. If you’re working from a historical perspective, older materials might be appropriate. If, however, you’re writing about contemporary intersex issues, you will want the most recent research. Note that having the most recent research will also help you avoid embarrassing and problematic faux pas with terminology. Make sure you cite all sources, never attributing a quote or idea to a person or group unless you have solid evidence.

10. Understand that writing about intersex and intersex people’s lives is much like writing about other issues and/or members of any other group: you want to be sensitive, take the members of that group seriously, read as much as possible, and think critically about outside research and your own research and writing. These are really basic principles that should always be followed if you want to produce good written work.