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Intersexphobia or interphobia is characterised by a dismissive attitude and negative feelings towards intersex and intersex people. The phobia manifests itself as contempt, prejudice, hatred or antipathy. This may lead to intersex discrimination: excluding, insulting or treating intersex people differently. This article gives examples of interphobia and intersex discrimination.

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Many people do not dare tell other people that they are intersex (Cull 2010). The main reason is that for a long time it was assumed that secrecy would protect against rejection and discrimination (Van Heesch 2015; van Lisdonk 2017). But the lack of acceptance by society is also an important reason.

Sometimes the opposition comes from unexpected communities. Some women who call themselves feminists use a definition of woman that leaves no room for intersex. Trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERFs, also called Farts – feminism-appropriating reactionary transphobes) think that chromosomes determine one’s sex, so XX chromosomes is a woman and XY chromosomes is a man ( 1999a; 1999b; Aragón 2006; Greer 2009). But most feminists see intersex as proof that, like gender, sex is also a social construct (Kitzinger 1999).[/opm] Support can also come from unexpected groups of people. The Nashville Declaration1The Nashville Declaration is a controversial document that originated from a conservative Christian organization in the United States. LGBT is condemned, while intersex is not.2While LGBT people are still seen as abnormal (sick) and immoral (sinful) by a part of society, intersex is only seen as abnormal. Because of the absence of the supposedly immoral aspect, it is also possible for Western intersex organizations to obtain orthodox-religious groups as allies. However, orthodox-religious groups do see intersex as a treatable disease: in that vision, intersex people fit into the biblical male/female dichotomy after medical treatment. In both cases, intersex people are used as an instrument to justify the social vision of these groups. This instrumentalization is a feature of objectification (Nussbaum 1995).

When it is convenient, intersex people are objectified, sensationalized, sexualized and stigmatized. Intersex people internalize this and because of a lack of autonomy they ‘choose’ to remain silent.

This can sometimes be seen, for example, in the headings of articles in magazines and journals – articles that are often well thought-out paint a nuanced empathic picture about intersex. Titles such as ‘I shouldn’t have been a girl’ (Van der Weide 2013), ‘A woman on the outside, but not on the inside’ (Ligtenberg 2011), ‘Female on the outside, male on the inside’ (De Corte 2010), and ‘The story of Eva, half man, half woman’ (Claeys 2009) are medically, biologically and socio-culturally incorrect, but above all do injustice to the interviewees. Someone who is completely insensitive to androgens should not ‘originally’ have been a boy, any more than nights should really have been days. There is no such thing as ‘originally’ or ‘actually’, especially when it comes to sex.

Even the recent experiences of female athletes give little cause for optimism. The combination of envy and secrecy is particularly thin. Examples from the world of athletics include the events surrounding Santhi Soundarajan in 2006 (Bhowmick 2009), Caster Semenya in 2009 (Wiesemann 2009; Buzuvis 2010) and Dutee Chand in 2014 (Karkazis 2014), three athletes who were forced to undergo medical treatment by World Athletics (former: IAAF)-affiliated doctors in 2013 (de Visser 2013; Fenichel 2013).

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Modern interphobia

It is not difficult to find examples on the internet of people speaking out against intersex in the most direct form. For example, the emergence of intersex people is denied or it is said that the gender of people is always determined by the chromosomes: XX = female, XY = male. This is called classic intersexphobia. Research on racism and homophobia shows that many people who pretend to be totally non-racist or homophobic may still make racist or homophobic comments if they have to react quickly, and thus without thinking, to a situation. Only when they have been given time to think for a moment do they realize that a comment is inappropriate, or that they have unknowingly treated someone differently.

What has happened with the headlines of the articles and with the athletes is a form of intersexphobia encountered in people who sincerely intend to behave without prejudice, but whose behaviour is nevertheless subtly influenced by their negative feelings and attitudes toward intersex. In analogy to the term ‘modern homophobia’3The idea behind ‘modern intersexphobia’, like the idea behind ‘modern homophobia’, is based on aversive racism as described in Samuel Gartner and John Dovidio’s 1968 book The aversive form of racism. The term ‘modern homophobia’ is hardly used nowadays, although the phenomenon is still current. Sometimes it is also referred to as ‘subtle homophobia’. Although the concept of aversive racism was developed to explain racial attitudes and behaviours, the idea of aversive prejudice can also be useful in understanding the nature of prejudice against sexual minorities (Crocker 2005). Although intersex people do not constitute a sexual minority in the sense of sexual preference, the stigmas faced by both groups are so close that it is not implausible that modern intersexphobia exists. The examples are given earlier seem to confirm this. or modern homonegativity (van Wijk 2005) can be referred to as modern intersexphobia. These modern forms are more difficult to determine empirically than the classical forms, but this does not mean that they do not have negative consequences for those affected (Sandfort 2005).

When people who rationally understand perfectly well that ‘being different’ should not be a reason to treat someone differently, do so anyway, automatic stereotyping can occur (Crocker 2005). This means that stereotypes are used that are not consciously endorsed. Intersex stereotyping is evident in the headlines of the aforementioned journal articles and in the treatment of the athletes: it is subconsciously assumed that the women interviewed are actually men. This is also true of the normalizing medical treatment of intersex people: it is subconsciously assumed that a body that does not fit within the normative social construct of male or female is inferior.

In doing so, intersex people are hit in a sensitive spot. Research among intersex women has found low levels of certainty regarding gender and female identity (Schweizer 2009; Bean 2009; Holt 2003).

Because of their often long medical history, intersex people are usually well aware of their stigmas. Keeping a secret from others and being careful that the secret doesn’t accidentally get out creates a lot of stress anyway.

Interphobia in practice

Because intersex people are hardly visible in society, interphobia is also hardly visible. Discriminatory comments are made mainly when intersex is in the news. Intersexphobia is also visible in unsuccessful ‘jokes’ about women who are considered too masculine and men who, according to others, have a penis that is too small. But things can also go wrong in organizations from which more wisdom might be expected. For example, on April 1, 2005, PETA issued a press release stating that scientists from the Diminutive Male Genitalia Disorder Research Organization had discovered the genetic link between cause of small penises and hunting. Of more recent date are the comments about Donald Trump’s allegedly small penis size. Even in drawings and statues, the former U.S. president is depicted with a micropenis.

Medical interphobia

The most discussed form of intersex phobia is the desire of parents to ‘normalize’ an intersex child with surgeries. The United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament have collected evidence that even in the Netherlands cosmetic surgeries and other treatments are still performed on intersex children who have not given their own consent. That different rules apply to trans children than to intersex children, while both the purpose and technique of the medical treatment do not differ, is a serious human rights violation that is rarely investigated and even less frequently prosecuted (Zeid 2015a; Zeid 2015b).

Third sex

In 2013, new legislation for intersex children was introduced in Germany. The law was far from ideal for intersex children because under the new law it was mandatory for intersex children to leave sex registration open. The German government clearly stated that leaving sex registration open did not indicate the registration of a ‘third sex’, yet the German transgender community framed it that way. As a result, most news stories were more about transgender than intersex.

This poll was conducted in response to the news that in Germany the sex of children born with ambiguous genitalia would no longer be registered (Gazet van Antwerpen 2013)

The Belgian paper de Gazet van Antwerpen published a poll in which readers could indicate what they thought about a third sex (Gazet van Antwerpen 2013). Although according to the German government there was no question of a ‘third sex’, this was nevertheless the tenor of the articles in many newspapers. Daily newspaper De Morgen had a similar poll, where they asked whether people thought the registration of a third sex should be possible. 31% chose yes, 55% no and 14% no opinion (n=4629) (De Morgen 2013). In the De Morgen poll, several readers responded with poor attempts at jokes.

Meanwhile, the obligation to leave the gender registration of intersex children open has been removed from German law.4However, intersex adults can, as in the Netherlands, choose to set the sex registration to ‘cannot be determined.’

Caster Semanya

Caster Semenya, the two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters from South Africa, has been fighting the discrimination she faces in the sport for about a decade. The global athletics federation World Athletics (formerly the IAAF) considers it unfair when female athletes have naturally high levels of the testosterone hormone. Thus, in April 2019, World Athletics introduced a maximum testosterone value for female athletes who have naturally high testosterone levels. Duped female athletes who still wanted to compete at these distances were expected to take hormone-regulating medication, which Caster refused. There is no scientific evidence that high testosterone levels are the basis for good athletic performance. Especially in the beginning, Semenya was often depicted as a man in cartoons. In recent years, more and more people are on her side. Elite sports, by definition, do not have a “level playing field” and every elite athlete has a genetic advantage in one way or another.

World Athletics’ ruling violates the bodily integrity and autonomy of Caster and other women with congenitally high testosterone levels. In September 2020, Caster Semenya said the following:

“I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am. Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history. I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born. I know what is right, and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere.”

Interphobia in practice

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Internalized interphobia

Stigma was defined by Goffman in 1963 as a sign or body mark ‘designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier’ (Goffman 1963). For Goffman, that sign is a social construct and may as well be a characteristic of being part of a group. Stigma, according to Goffman, is an unwanted otherness that contributes greatly to the discredit of the person who has the stigma. Herek defines stigma as the negative regard and inferior status that society collectively confers on people who possess a special characteristic or belong to a particular group or category (Herek 2009a). Stigma is determined by what society values (or does not value) as good and by change in these values (Herek 2009a). A stigma has a negative effect on a person when society’s stigmatizing responses are aligned with a person’s image of themselves (Herek 2009b). In other words, it is possible for a minority to adopt society’s prejudices and thus stigmatize themselves. Herek uses the word self-stigma for this. Intersex individuals may exhibit interphobic behavior in this way. This internalized intersexphobia makes it extremely difficult to share with others that you are intersex.7The debate over whether it is DSD or intersex goes so far in some cases that proponents and opponents do not want to talk to each other. This can certainly be considered a sign of internalized intersexphobia. However, the fear that sometimes exists among people of being associated with another diagnosis is also a sign of intersexphobia.

Although no research has been done on this, internalized intersexphobia might be a more significant obstacle to openness than modern intersexphobia described earlier.

To tell or not to tell?

Yes, do tell. People who have done so say it’s been important to be freed from secrecy and openly be themselves. But they also say that they choose for themselves what to tell someone and what not to tell them. You can also choose what to tell people about your personal story and experiences. For example, when coming out, some intersex women first tell others that they cannot have children. Some intersex women choose to share further information only with people close to them, for example about not having a uterus, and the presence of XY chromosomes and testes.

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