Introducing Intersex Characters

Introducing Intersex Characters

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

Over the last two weeks I’ve discussed general guidelines for writing intersex characters, including some important tropes to avoid. So this week, I’m going to talk about introducing intersex characters!

Before you get started here, I recommend you at least read over the tropes to avoid post, as it goes into a bit more detail as to why some of these methods aren’t so great!

Good Methods of Introducing Intersex Characters

Self-Disclosure

This is similar to my usual best-practice advice of “let your characters come out,” but I’m framing it differently this week because, as I’ve explained before, intersex people are not inherently queer. Therefore, they don’t really “come out” the same way LGBTQIA+ people do.

An image of the characters Ken and Amy from the TV show "Freaks and Geeks." Ken, portrayed by Seth Rogan, is a white man with curly brown hair and prominent side burns, wearing a dark denim shirt. His arm is around Amy, a white woman with long straight brown hair, wearing a light blue jacket and a floral blose and holding a notebook
Though not necessarily the BEST rep, Amy does at least get to tell her own story in Freaks and Geeks

No matter how an intersex person feels about their intersex traits, those traits are a part of their personal medical history. Some take pride in their intersex bodies and readily speak to the issues they face and the unique experience of living in a body that exists outside the natural conception of the gender binary — and that’s great! Others, though, might not want to go into details about what intersex traits they have, especially if their intersex traits involve the size or shape of their genitals.

Like stealth trans people or those with invisible disabilities, an intersex person might feel more safe or comfortable by withholding information about their intersex identity. Such individuals might only disclose their identity to a trusted friend, partner, or medical professional, and only in the utmost confidence.

It’s enough for an intersex person to self-disclose by saying “I’m intersex,” so long as you’re taking into account how that reality impacts their life and characterization. Beyond that, you really don’t need to go into detail. Even if you’ve got a specific intersex trait in mind for your character, it’s probably best to err on the side of vaguery unless you’ve done a LOT of research or have firsthand knowledge.

Iffy Ways of Introducing Intersex Characters

Usually I’d give at least a couple of good methods, but with how intersex traits are pathologized, stigmatized, and sensationalized, I think it’s probably best to make sure you’re giving your characters agency and nuance. That being said, there are some ways of introducing intersex characters that aren’t inherently bad, but do require that you have a very solid grasp on the situation.

Medical Issues

A few intersex traits do involve medical issues that need to be addressed for the health of the individual. These account for a relatively slim margin of actual intersex people, but it’s possible your intersex character would have to take medications or undergo surgeries to actually preserve their health, as opposed to those intersex surgeries that focus on aesthetics.

If you’re going to go this route, PLEASE do your research to understand what actual medical risks an intersex character might face. “Developmental issues” and risk of cancer have been greatly overblown throughout history, and so it can be difficult to piece apart what is actually medically necessary, and what has become the norm for treatments in order to artificially maintain the supposed biological binary.

Secondary Sex Characteristics

This refers to traits that develop during puberty depending on the sort of puberty — testosterone vs estrogen — that someone undergoes. Examples are breast development for those who undergo a traditional estrogen puberty, and facial hair growth and voice deepening for those who undergo a testosterone puberty.

Intersex people may experience a puberty that differs from what is commonly considered “standard” for the biological binary. Some with higher testosterone levels or increased response to T might develop facial hair or other changes associated with testosterone, like fat redistribution. Some with lower T levels or lower response to T might develop breasts and hips.. Some might not undergo puberty at all!

Make sure you do your research and understand what intersex traits lead to what puberty outcomes. You can’t simply mix-and-match “male” and “female” traits willy-nilly and call your character intersex. This also isn’t a surefire way of introducing intersex characters — plenty of people, both cis and trans, have highly varied secondary sex characteristics. To really make sure your character is being read as intersex, you have to be explicit with their identity!

Bad Ways of Introducing Intersex Characters

Focus on Anatomy

One of the reasons the Secondary Sex Characteristics above is pretty iffy is because it really toes the line with hyperfocusing on an intersex character’s anatomy.

You shouldn’t make an intersex person’s genitals or other anatomical features the entire focus of their character, and you certainly shouldn’t use such traits as the “reveal” that your character is intersex. This smacks of a similar harmful trope used for trans people, and frankly it’s gross. Leave anatomy out of it!

Getting Outed

I’m using the “outing” terminology here because, to my understanding, the experience is very similar. 

An intersex person’s intersex traits are their own damn business. It’s really harmful, and potentially dangerous, when someone talks about an intersex person’s intersex traits without their consent. Not to mention that intersex traits are part of someone’s medical history, something which is universally held to be a private matter.

Introducing intersex characters by having someone else out them is not cool, especially if the narrative isn’t punishing or demonizing the one doing the outing!

Conclusion 

Though intersex people aren’t inherently queer, introducing intersex characters requires a lot of the same respect and nuance as introducing queer characters. You can draw inspiration from trans and nonbinary communities, but don’t conflate them!

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