Depending on the type of intersex variation someone has, it could alter their chromosome makeup, genital appearance, hormonal balance, and more.

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We’re born with diverse characteristics that span everything from our physical features to our personality traits and more. One of those diverse human attributes is sex, defined by features such as our chromosomes, anatomy, and other characteristics.

Although society often places sex into binary categories such as female and male, the fact is that sex is just as diverse as any other human characteristic. Intersex variations, for example, describe sexual variations that fall outside of the “typical” sex binary.

Below, we’ll explore the different types of intersex variations and answer some of the most commonly asked questions about differences in sexual development (DSD).

Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe people born with variations in sexual characteristics that don’t fit into the binary categorizations of female and male. Intersex conditions are also known as DSD.

As an umbrella term, intersex includes many variations that can differ depending on someone’s unique sex characteristics. Some of the characteristics that distinguish these variations include:

  • chromosomes
  • genitalia
  • reproductive organs
  • sex hormones
  • physical features

Intersex people may have more than one varied characteristic, such as both an insensitivity to sex hormones and differences in sexual anatomy.

According to the intersex advocacy organization interACT, there are over 30 defined terms for different intersex variations. Some examples of these variations include:

  • 5-alpha reductase deficiency (5-ARD): 5-ARD causes changes in testosterone metabolism that lead to genital differences. People with 5-ARD have XY chromosomes and testes but may have an atypical penis, vulva, or unidentifiable genitals at birth.
  • Androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS): AIS causes a complete or partial insensitivity to androgens, or male sex hormones. People with AIS have XY chromosomes and testes, but depending on the level of insensitivity, they may have differing variations in external sex characteristics.
  • Clitoromegaly and micropenis: Clitoromegaly is characterized by a clitoris that’s larger than typical. Micropenis is characterized by a penis that’s smaller than typical. Both conditions are usually associated with other types of intersex variations.
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH): CAH causes differences in hormone production, including cortisol, aldosterone, and androgens. It’s more common for XX individuals with CAH to experience changes in sex characteristics than XY individuals with the condition.
  • Gonadal dysgenesis: Gonadal dysgenesis causes variations in the development of the testes and ovaries before birth. People with complete gonadal dysgenesis don’t have developed testicles or ovaries, which can affect or prevent puberty. People with partial gonadal dysgenesis have chromosomal changes that often lead to internal and external sex differences.
  • Klinefelter syndrome: Klinefelter syndrome is characterized by an extra X chromosome. People with this syndrome have a 47XXY chromosomal pattern instead of 46XY, which can cause underdeveloped testes, lower testosterone, and some female characteristics.
  • Ovotestes: Ovotesticular DSD causes someone to have both ovarian tissue and testicular tissue, usually due to chromosomal variations. People with this condition may have different reproductive and sex organs and can experience atypical changes in puberty.
  • Turner syndrome: Turner syndrome is characterized by a 45X chromosome pattern. People with this syndrome often have distinct physical features and can experience changes in their reproductive organs, sex hormones, and other sex characteristics.

It’s important to know that this is not an exhaustive list of all intersex conditions. People can be born with or develop many other intersex variations.

Intersex variations can affect intersex people differently, and there’s no “one” intersex experience. Whether you’ve recently learned that you’re intersex or you’re curious to learn more about what it means to be intersex, here are a few more things you should know.

Which is the rarest form of intersex?

According to some research, the rarest form of intersex variation is ovotesticular DSD, also called ovotestes. Ovotesticular DSD was previously known as “true hermaphroditism,” but intersex individuals choose to no longer use this term, as it has become stigmatizing.

Can you be intersex and not know it?

Yes. Intersex conditions can vary from person to person, and not every intersex individual has outwardly visible changes in their sex characteristics. Some people may never know that they’re intersex, while others become aware later in life through personal experiences or medical testing.

Do intersex people have periods?

Sometimes. Several factors can affect whether someone experiences periods, including intersex variations that affect different sex characteristics. At the end of the day, whether or not an intersex person has periods will depend on how their intersex condition affects their body.

What is the difference between intersex and hermaphrodite?

“Hermaphrodite” is an outdated and misleading term that medical professionals previously used to describe people with intersex conditions. Many intersex people consider the term a slur and prefer to use “intersex” to describe themselves and their experiences.

Is being intersex the same as being transgender?

No. Although sex and gender are related, they’re not the same thing.

However, some intersex people may also be transgender, depending on how their feelings align with the gender they were raised as. It’s also possible that an intersex person’s concept of their gender may change if their body goes through changes they weren’t expecting during puberty.

Does PCOS qualify as an intersex variation?

The answer to this question is still highly contested among medical experts and the intersex community. Currently, PCOS isn’t medically considered an intersex variation. But many people with PCOS do experience intersex-like changes to their hormonal balance, genitals, secondary sex characteristics, and more.

Over 30 different intersex variations exist,. These conditions are characterized by differences in chromosomal patterns, external genitalia, and so much more. Intersex variations can affect people differently, so there’s no singular experience that all intersex people have.

If you’re interested in learning more about intersex conditions, consider checking out interACT Advocates for Intersex Youth. It’s an organization dedicated to breaking the intersex stigma and providing resources for intersex people.