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The Problem With Oversimplifying Sex






Kimberly M. Zieselman
Published Date

On April 3, 2024, the New York Times published a guest opinion essay, “The Problem with Saying ‘Sex Assigned at Birth,’” co-authored by Alex Byrne and Carole K. Hooven, in which the authors asserted that the term “sex assigned at birth,” increasingly used in recent years by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) and gender justice advocates, creates unnecessary confusion about something that is simply a “straightforward biological fact.” The authors argued that the term “sex” alone is sufficient. But it’s not that simple. Sex characteristics involve various facts about anatomy, hormones, and chromosomes that are not always aligned.


As a woman with innate variations of sex characteristics and as an advocate for intersex people's human rights with Outright International, I was dismayed by the co-authors' total disregard for the existence of 135 million people born "intersex." Intersex people are born with a mixture of female and male sex traits. We are more common than identical twins or persons with cystic fibrosis, and yet, we remain largely invisible. This invisibility is a result of both social stigma and the surgical attempts to erase our healthy intersex bodies: around the world, infants and children are subjected to medically unnecessary and irreversible genital surgeries to force them into binary sex. Most of these interventions occur under age two before children can even talk, let alone express a gender identity. These harmful practices cause lifelong physical and emotional harm.

Some intersex people are assigned a sex at birth that doesn't align with sex characteristics that emerge in adolescence. Acknowledging their lived experience through the phrase "sex assigned at birth" is not about a "trend" or "politeness," as Byrne and Hooven would have it. Similarly, transgender people may be assigned a sex that no longer accurately reflects their sex characteristics as a result of gender-affirming medical treatment. Inquiries into a person's "sex" if the person is intersex or trans might not have a straightforward, binary answer.

On April 4, 2024, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a historic resolution acknowledging intersex persons and the discrimination and harmful practices so many suffer. Yet somehow, even academics continue to ignore the existence of a group of people approximately the size of Mexico's population. Our human rights to bodily autonomy and well-being deserve to be acknowledged, respected, and protected - just like everyone else's.

Referring to the term "sex assigned at birth," the co-authors ended their essay with a proclamation that we as a society must "omit needless words."  

However, isn't it more important not to omit real people?

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