Intersex people are all around us, according to Dr. Veronica Drantz, a professor at North Shore and DePaul universities.
Drantz gave a presentation on intersex people as part of H.E.R. (Health, Education and Recreation) Day at Center on Halsted June 11.
Drantz challenged the notions of sex and gender that we're taught in school, where she says it's "the male, the femalethe end." Drantz said that there are a wide variety of people that fall in between, and the reason is all in their DNA.
When babies are still in the womb an array of chromosomes affect sexual development. Some are the well known X and Y. Others turn hormones off and on. This hormone cocktail determines how a baby's internal and external sex organs develop, as well as what gender they end up feeling like in the brain.
"Mutations are totally natural," said Drantz. These genetic mutations can cause babies to come out all over the male-female spectrum, the most obvious differences appearing externally at birth. Others find that they're different once they hit puberty when many hormones are 'turned on.'
She said "we should expect some people to be partially alteredintersex people," due to the wide occurrence of mutations. However, she added, "when mutations have to do with sex we get our panties in a bunch!"
Drantz said no one is quite sure how many people are intersex, but conservative estimates range from 1.7 percent to 2.5 percent of the population.
"There are a lot of people who are intersex and don't know it," Drantz said. Many people don't find out until later in lifesome because the signs don't show up until puberty, and some because they were lied to by doctors and parents.
Drantz said that when intersex babies are born, doctors will often perform surgery right away to "correct" their genitals, usually turning them into "girls" because it's easier. The children are sometimes given female or male hormones to push them in the desired direction, and doctors and parents cover up medical records so that the children never know.
It doesn't always work, though. Many intersex people will eventually discover what happened to them after a life of gender confusion.
Drantz cited a famous case of identical male twins, one born intersex and raised as a girl. At the age of 14, David Reimer decided to live as a male, not knowing that he was actually born a male in the first place. This case is often used to show how genetics play a role in sexual identity.
Two intersex spokespeople were at the presentation and told the group about their experiences.
Mugsie Pike found out she was intersex after reading about the genetic syndrome she has in a textbook in college. Until then, Pike said she "didn't know that anything like this existed."
She had suffered medical issues as a teenager (caused by her hormone levels) and has been taking testosterone suppressants to help. She came out as bisexual around 11 or 12.
"I don't identify explicitly as male or female," Pike said, although she usually presents herself as female.
Alex McCorry said that when he was born, the doctor told his mother she had a boy, but hours later changed him into a girl. He had a hard time with this as a child.
"I couldn't understand why no one could see I was a boy," he said. At puberty, he developed male body hair and had to shave often and everywhere. He suffered abuse as a child, and battled drug and alcohol abuse later in life.
He came out as a lesbian at 18, but eventually decided to become male. After examining him, a doctor was able to tell him all of the surgeries that had been performed on him as a baby. Unfortunately they were so extensive that they can't be fully reversed.
"My decision wasn't to transition," McCorry said. "It was to stop hiding what was there."
"There are a lot of people suffering here," Drantz said. She said doctors should explain to parents what it means to be intersex instead of treating it as an emergency situation.
"We've got to stop looking in people's pants to find out who they are," she added.
Drantz said that all people fall on a continuum of sexuality that includes their physical appearance, reproductive organs and brain patterns, some falling on the opposite ends (male and female) while others are anywhere within the spectrum.
"In a way," Drantz said, "we're all intersex."