Tropes To Avoid When Writing Intersex Characters
As always, these are not necessarily hard and fast rules — there are writers who can weave these tropes into their narratives in compelling, nuanced, and critical ways. However, those writers are probably intersex themselves, and therefore have a deeper understanding of these tropes. If that’s not you, stick with the title and avoid these tropes. They’re listed here specifically so you can learn to spot them in your own writing!
Disordered and Pathological
The common understanding of intersex traits as “disordered” is based on flawed science, faulty assumptions, and a whole bunch of cisnormativity.
Generally speaking, differences of sexual development — including those that are visible at birth — do not require ANY medical intervention for the sake of the individual’s health. When intersex surgeries are performed on infants, they tend to be framed as important to give the child a “normal” life — but most these surgeries can have lasting negative ramifications that far outweigh the supposed “benefits.”
There are very few intersex traits which require medical intervention for health purposes. If an infant does not have a urethral opening at all, for example, one must be created so that the infant can pee. This, however, does not have to happen if the urethral opening is simply in the “wrong” place, and having no opening at all is extremely rare. Other intersex traits — most notably Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH) — can cause hormonal issues that, if improperly managed, can lead to life-threatening metabolic complications. HOWEVER, surgically altering the appearance of the genitals does absolutely nothing to address these hormonal imbalances.
As I said last week — the best course of action for any and all intersex surgeries is to wait and allow the intersex individual to make informed decisions about their own bodies when they’re old enough to understand them. Uncritically portraying differences of sexual development as inherently unhealthy serves only to perpetuate the idea that intersex surgeries on literal infants are ever justified. They aren’t.
Focus on Anatomy
There’s a lot of sensationalized fascination in society about “what’s going on down there” for intersex individuals. This is rude and gross. You wouldn’t ask a dyadic (non-intersex) person to describe the size, shape, or functionality of their genitals. To place all the focus on an intersex character’s anatomy, as though their anatomy defines them, is equally horrible.
When writing intersex characters, as with trans and nonbinary characters, just leave out specific mentions of genitalia entirely. It’s not really anyone’s business!
Made the Right Choice
Very related to the various intersecting tropes that lead people to believe that intersex surgeries are medically necessary is the idea that parents ultimately made the right choice for their child by getting them an intersex surgery.
Now, don’t get me wrong — there exist individuals who are perfectly happy with their surgically altered bodies, and do feel that their parents and doctors made the correct choices for them. This, however, is an exceedingly slim proportion of intersex people — and they would likely be just as satisfied with the results of a surgery they had an informed say in.
For most intersex folx, intersex surgeries are a lifelong trauma that can never be fully reversed — once the tissue is altered or removed, that’s that. To portray an intersex person as happy and content with their parents’ decision to subject them to intersex surgery is to perpetuate the idea that intersex people are better off having those decisions made for them, when it’s much better to allow the intersex individuals to make informed decisions when they’re old enough to understand them.
When writing intersex characters who have undergone intersex surgery as children, I’d avoid this entirely. There might be room for interesting narratives around the conflicts within an intersex community between those who agree with their childhood surgeries and those who don’t — but that is very much not a story for a dyadic person to tell.
People with intersex traits have long been stigmatized and sensationalized in the popular consciousness, and portrayed as freakish or aberrant. Bearded ladies, people with indeterminate genitals, and those with ambiguous secondary sex characteristics were often fixtures of medical marvel or freakshows, based on the idea that they were strange or unsettling.
There are also references throughout literature and folklore to individuals — usually those in league with demonic or evil forces — as having malformed primary sex characteristics, such as goat or dog genitals. All of these conceptualizations of people with intersex traits serve only to stigmatize them, to make intersex traits something to be hidden and corrected at all costs.
This is harmful to intersex people, especially intersex youths, and intersects with demonization of trans and nonbinary peoples. Moreover, it contributes to pathologization — surely, no one wants to be this way, and therefore the nonconsensual intersex surgeries are actually justified.
And, on that note — there are absolutely no differences of sexual development that can result in an individual with both a fully functional penis and a fully functional vagina. Old descriptions of “hermaphrodites” were often sensationalized and inaccurate. Today, that word is considered rude and offensive by just about all intersex people — so do not use it when writing intersex characters!
I touched on this one last week, but there’s an idea that intersex people are inherently part of the LGBTQIA+ community. The I in that acronym even stands for intersex! However, not all intersex people identify as queer. There is a rather large overlap between those who are intersex and do identify as queer, but that Venn Diagram is not a circle. There are cis, straight intersex folx.
Now, there ARE lots of commonalities between intersex and queer issues, especially trans issues, because of the way the heteropatriarchy and cisnormativity seek to police our bodies. However, it’s very frustrating for intersex advocates when dyadic trans people completely co-opt their messaging and turn the attention entirely on themselves, sometimes leaving out the distinctions between our communities and overshadowing the needs of intersex individuals which don’t directly benefit dyadic trans folx. We need to come together in coalition and fight for all the needs of our communities, shared and unshared, not just cherrypick what’s convenient for our talking points!
When writing intersex characters, don’t paint them as universally queer, and don’t just equate their struggles with the broader struggle for LGBTQIA+ rights! Plenty of people just don’t identify with those labels, and they are perfectly valid in their experiences.
That’s it for this week! As always, writing intersex characters requires knowledge and nuance. Make sure you’re questioning your assumptions, and it’s never a bad idea to run your writing past a sensitivity reader!