Intersex Rights: How sex classification makes millions of Americans “strangers to the law”

“A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws.”[1]
Justice Kennedy – Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 635 (1996)

Throughout history there have been laws and regulations that required the identification of a person’s sex or gender to determine rights and responsibilities in society. The current social, political, and legal uproar over the right of same-sex couples to marry is just the latest of many.

The right to vote in the United States required a person to be male prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.[2] But what if, prior to 1920, you wanted to vote and couldn’t prove you were male? In 1843, twenty-three-year-old Levi Suydam of Salisbury, Connecticut, attempted to vote “as a Whig in a hotly contested local election.”[3] Suydam was thought to be “more female than male” so the town selectmen brought in a physician who, finding a phallus and testicles, declared him male and allowed him to vote. The Whigs won by a single vote. Later the same physician discovered that Suydam, whose gender expression and narrow shoulders and broad hips were very feminine, also had a vagina and regular menstrual cycle. Levi was intersex.[4]

IntersexRights-whiteMy friend David Cameron wants to marry the male partner he has been with for years. David is not entirely male, so his relationship is not really a “same-sex marriage,” but David is not entirely female either. David’s chromosomes are XXY.[5] He has a penis and very small testes. The rest of his body was of a feminine shape, hairless with wide hips and full breasts, until doctors told him he had to take testosterone to be a “normal” man.[6] His California state birth certificate and driver’s license list him as “male.” But David doesn’t feel male, nor does he feel female.[7] David is intersex, and wishes to change his legal identification to match his true birth sex.

David approached me a few years ago with this challenge, and later was joined by three other intersex Californians with the same request, including Hida Viloria. These “four brave humans” (as we nicknamed the group) are attempting to challenge the pervasive myth of duality by insisting the law recognize the existence of their true sex.[8]


Around the time David approached me I was writing a paper called “Strangers to the Law: The Legal Treatment of People Who Are Intersex, Intergender, or In-between.” The point of the paper was to bring some visibility of the juridical issues of intersexuality to the legal community. At the time Australia had just just changed its passport laws, but I knew of no U.S. cases of a classification other than M or F being allowed by any state or federal agency.

I have since heard of one case in September 2012 of a birth certificate being changed in Ohio at an intersex person’s request, approved ironically because of Ohio’s anti-transgender policies, but the court ordered the pejorative “hermaphrodite” term be used. Additionally there is a lone intersex person attempting to get the sex classification changed on their driver’s license in Colorado, having filed discrimination charges with the Colorado Civil Rights Division against Colorado’s version of the dept of motor vehicles. The December 2012 response was that “[c]urrent procedures and programming allow only either the sex designation of ‘male’ or ‘female’ on driver’s license applications” and a recommendation that they go ask the legislature. (See footnotes below for recent cases).

Pick-one Imagine this: what if society had decided there were only two kinds of people, the Blondes and the Black Haired. If you have a CA Driver License (I don’t know about other states) look at it. Mine says SEX:F  HAIR:BLN. I was born a “Blonde.” Now imagine you are a Redhead. An intersex friend of mine told me that being born Intersex is more common than being born a Redhead. Imagine every form you ever filled out had only 2 check boxes for hair color and the computer systems were all set up to accept only 2 choices: BLN or BLK. Just like there are only 2 boxes for M or F. You don’t really have BLN or BLK hair (or at least you weren’t born with it, although it may have been dyed by your parents and doctors to force you to fit in) but you have to pick one of those boxes every time you fill out a form, and carry an ID that says you are something that you know you really aren’t. Now you may be saying “Toby, sex isn’t the same as hair color!” Right. Society has made a huge deal out of what sex or gender category a person is born into or assigned. So isn’t it that much more important to be inclusive of all sexes and genders?

Not all intersex persons identify as intersex or want to identify themselves publicly as intersex, but some do, both for reasons of challenging “intersex invisibility” and to address issues with misidentification. Practically speaking I think the most effective way to accomplish the task of changing ID laws will be to start with the relatively LGBT friendly California state legislature and put forth a bill to amend the statutes and regulations controlling drivers’ licenses to allow for a third classification (as was successfully done by transgender rights advocates to allow people to change their classification). Both “I” for “intersex/intergender” or “X” for “indeterminate” (like the “X” on passports allowed in Australia) have been discussed as options.

However, if they succeed in getting their legal sex changed to “I” or “X” they will be left out by all of the statutes that mention sex, because they are neither male nor female. They can marry no one in most states.[9] They are to be incarcerated nowhere.[10] They are not covered by affirmative action hiring of women[11] or military drafting of men.[12] They do not exist. They are “strangers to the law.”[13]


At this point some of you are probably wondering if I am intersex. Why else would I care so much about this issue? I am not intersex. I am a bisexual woman. Having spoken out loudly for bisexual visibility, I feel especially passionate about others who have been made invisible in society. Intersex invisibility is far more pervasive than bisexual invisibility. Even the term “bisexual” is a misnomer perpetuating intersex invisibility: “bi” meaning “two” or “both” assumes only two sexes. In his article on bisexual erasure Kenji Yoshino writes:

“These premises–that there are two sexes (male and female) and that anatomical sex can be coherently distinguished from social gender [are] deeply contestable ones.  [T]he intersexed occupy a place between the two conventionally ordained sexes (male and female) that the bisexual occupies between the two conventionally ordained orientations [gay and straight]. Making bisexuality visible on the grounds that intermediate categories deserve social attention while letting intersexuality remain invisible thus creates an ironic asymmetry.”[14]

In spite of society’s obsession with the duality of male and female the law has mostly failed to legally define sex. The law ignores those whose sex may be ambiguous. In keeping with the myth of duality, the law makes no provision for people who are intersex because it assumes that exceptions to the rule of two are extremely rare, when in fact they are anything but. Law professor and expert on intersexuality Julie A. Greenberg says:

“Recent medical literature indicates that approximately one to four percent of the world’s population may be intersexed and have either ambiguous or noncongruent sex features. Thus, the manner in which the law defines ‘male,’ ‘female,’ and ‘sex’ will have a profound impact on at least 2.7 million persons in the United States. If, as some experts believe, the number of intersexed people is four percent, approximately ten million people in the United States will be affected.”[15]

David, Hida, and others like them are not nearly as rare as people think. Add to this the untold numbers of people who are intergender (identify as neither male nor female) or in-between (transgender people in the process of transitioning) and the need to uncover and correct the myth of duality becomes all too clear. “[L]abeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision.”[16] The duality of male and female is not a scientific fact, unbending like a concrete foundation. It is a social construct, flexible and changing over time. Basing law upon the myth of duality is like building a house upon sand.

Male-Female-questionPeople who are intersex, intergender, or in-between are done violence by the myth of duality as they are forced into boxes which they do not fit, like a square peg in a round hole. Existing statutes that differentiate by sex/gender are all, of course, about man and woman, male and female. So although the laws discriminate against M (male), F (female), or both on the basis of sex, the invisible third sex/gender “I” (intersex/intergender/in-between) is completely left out of the picture. The invisibility of millions of intersex people highlights the absurdity of the gender specific laws like the so called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are different parts of each person’s identity that exist side by side. [17] The popular notion that there are two distinct categories for each area (male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine, gay/straight) with everyone falling neatly into one or the other is a absurd. People who are intersex, genderqueer,[18] androgynous, or pansexual do exist, along a continuum. We do not live in a black and white world. We live in a rainbow of colors.

The strict gender-binary social construct is based on a myth. Many people can and do exist somewhere in the spectrum between male and female, neither man nor woman. These people are made strangers to the law by our strictly dual gendered system of classification and the discriminatory laws based on that system. Classification at birth (and the surgery that often accompanies it) is particularly onerous to intersex persons, whose proper gender cannot be known until they are old enough to speak for themselves and may not correspond to either of the two choices given. The use of terms of sex/gender in statutory language and inconsistent state and federal laws and regulations on changing one’s classification create additional barriers for people who are intersex, intergender, or in-between during transition. While it is unlikely that the entire system of sex and gender classification will be defeated any time soon, it is imperative that we do away with all discrimination based on sex and gender, and begin to think of ways to allow people to accurately classify themselves and include those of a third sex/gender that is neither male/man nor female/woman. The intersex/intergender/in-between people of our society are part of our society, and cannot continue to be made strangers to its laws.

For more on this topic read my paper:  Strangers to the Law: The Legal Treatment of People Who Are Intersex, Intergender, or In-between …particularly if you want to find out more details about the historical and cultural background of the myth of duality and how marriage and ID statutes affect intersex, intergender, and transgender persons (topics on which I might write additional blog posts).
Special thanks to Professor Larry Levine, legal writing specialist Lexis Allen, and career coach Molly Stafford.


[1] Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 635 (1996).

[2] U.S. Const. amend. XIX prohibits any U.S. citizen from being denied the right to vote based on sex.

[3] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, pg. 30 (2000).

[4] “An estimated one in 2,000 babies is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy and/or chromosome pattern that doesn’t seem to fit typical definitions of male or female.  The conditions that cause these variations are sometimes grouped under the terms ‘intersex’ or ‘DSD’ (Differences of Sex Development).  These conditions include androgen insensitivity syndrome, some forms of congenital adrenal hyperplasia, Klinefelter’s syndrome, Turner’s syndrome, hypospadias, and many others.” Anne Tamar-Mattis, FAQ: What is intersex/DSD?, Advocates for Informed Choice (AIC),

[5] “Most men inherit a single X chromosome from their mother, and a single Y chromosome from their father. Men with Klinefelter syndrome inherit an extra X chromosome from either father or mother; their karyotype is 47 XXY. Klinefelter is quite common, occuring (sic.) in 1/500 to 1/1,000 male births.” Klinefelter Syndrome, Intersex Society of North America (ISNA)

[6] David Cameron “My Intersex Journey: From Awkward Teenager to Human Rights Activist” in 21st Century Sexualities : Contemporary Issues in Health, Education, and Rights, edited by Gilbert H Herdt & Cymene Howe, at 163-164 (2007). See also D. Cameron “Caught Between: An Essay on Intersexuality” in Intersex in the Age of Ethics, edited by Alice Dreger, at 92-93 (1999).

[7] Id.

[8] The status of their case is that they have not yet filed any paperwork and are in discussions with LGBT and Intersex advocacy groups about how best to proceed.

Recent Cases, Ohio: In the Matter of the Application for Correction of the Birth Record of [name redacted]; Probate Court of Franklin County, Ohio; entered September 19, 2012.

Recent Cases, Colorado: Dana Alix ZZyym v. Colorado Dept. of Revenue; Colorado Division of Civil Rights; charge filed October 19, 2012.

[9] At the time my paper was written only seven U.S. jurisdictions had gender-neutral marriage laws: Massachusetts (Goodridge v. Dept of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941 (2003)), Connecticut (Kerrigan v. Comm’r of Pub. Health, 957 A.2d 407 (2008)), Iowa (Varnum v. Brien, 763 N.W.2d 862 (2009)), Vermont (Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15 § 8 (2009)), New Hampshire (N.H. Rev. Stat § 457:1, et seq, (2010)), the District of Columbia (D.C. Code § 46-401; affirmed in Jackson v. D.C. Bd. of Elections & Ethics, 999 A.2d 89 (2010 D.C. App.)), and New York (A.B. 8354, 234th Gen. Assem., Reg. Sess. (2011)). Additionally California recognizes the 18,000 same-sex marriages that occurred in the state and any that occurred in other jurisdictions between June 16, 2008 and Nov. 4, 2008 as valid marriages.  See generally Marriage Equality & Other Relationship Recognition Laws, Human Rights Campaign, at (updated July 6, 2011).

[10] See, e.g., Cal. Pen. Code, Part 3, Title 1. “Imprisonment of Male Prisoners in State Prisons” and Title 2. “Imprisonment of Female Prisoners in State Institutions”.

[11] See, e.g., Cal Ed Code § 89515 (2010).

[12] See, e.g., Miss. Code Ann. § 25-9-127 (2011), “male state employees required to register with selective service”

[13] Romer, 517 U.S. at 635.

[14] Kenji Yoshino, The epistemic contract of bisexual erasure, Stanford Law Review, January 1, 2000.

[15] Julie A. Greenberg, Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Defining Male and Female: Intersexuality and the Collision Between Law and Biology, 41 Ariz. L. Rev. 265, 267-268 (Summer, 1999).

[16] Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body, at 3.

[17] Center for Gender Sanity, Diagram of Sex and Gender, (2009).

[18] “Genderqueer: Someone who rejects the traditional gender binary and identifies as a) neither male nor female, b) as both, or c) as a combination thereof.” Stewart Wachs, Questioning Gender: An interview with Japan-based psychotherapist Kim Oswalt, Kyoto Journal #64, Nov-Dec 2006,

11 Comments on “Intersex Rights: How sex classification makes millions of Americans “strangers to the law””

  1. Catherine Adams says:

    I appreciate & am enjoying checking out your references here. This is a topic I know next to nothing about … except what I’ve learned from you. …. Thanks for teaching me stuff

  2. Jen Feminism for ALL says:

    Wow Toby what a great essay! I have always found the binary system of classification (in many areas of society) frustrating and artificial. I had not thought about all of the ramifications for intersex/in-between people legally, and this was a great thought-provoking read. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  3. Kailana alaniz says:

    Nice blog concerning Intersex tights and recognition. I support the right to include I as a legitimate sex marker. I am also Intersex and probably need to contact a few people to get some advice on how to petition Washington State health department and courts to get an Intersex marker recognized by all agencies. Washington State has ENDA which covers most antidiscrimination concerning gender expression, identity and marriage equality but Intersex is not recognized by itself.

  4. […] This excellent blog post by attorney and intersex ally, Toby Adams, examines how intersex people are not accurately represented by legal identification documents. […]

  5. […] Intersex Rights: How sex classification makes millions of Americans “strangers to the law… → […]

  6. Jo McAllister says:

    I too am intersex diagnosed with androgen insensistivity syndrome. I am from Mississippi and I have written emails to my state representatives to create a legislation to include a marker for myself and others like me. I do not think it is fair for society to force you to become something that you are not. I have yet to get any response. I am not sure what steps I should take now if any. Thank you for any advice you can offer.

    • Jo, so glad you commented here! We just launched the Intersex & Genderqueer Recognition Project (IGRP) at IGRP is a legal project to support the rights of people like you. The time is right to stand up for Intersex Rights! – Toby

  7. Nathan Rasmussen says:

    The Supreme Court has agreed to hear four cases on marriage rights, consolidating the questions in these problematic terms: “1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? 2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?”

    In fact, this mis-states the issue: On each question and in all four cases, relevant state law forbids performing or recognizing not only marriages between people of the same sex, but all marriages except those of one man and one woman. Thus they withhold marriage from all who, knowingly or not, are in any degree intersex.

    The Court’s wording is on its surface unfortunate, in that it precludes addressing DSD marriage rights directly. However, by accepting that the petitioners are of the same sex, it takes for granted that they can unambiguously be sexed. This is a point on which DSD organizations are better informed than the court is.

    Information about the forms and prevalence of unrecognized intersex variations bears directly on the matter the Court has consented to consider, and is therefore suitable matter for an amicus curiae brief. Yet if it contributed to the Court’s eventual decision on the same-sex question, it would have powerful, positive ramifications for DSD marriage rights as well.

    It therefore occurred to me to wonder whether you know of any advocacy groups preparing such a brief.

    Sincerely yours, etc.

    • Nathan,
      I do not know of any groups writing such an Amicus brief addressing the invisibility of non-binary persons (intersex, DSD, etc), although I am involved in drafting an Amicus on the SCOTUS marriage case for a group of Bisexual Lawyers/Legal Scholars addressing the invisibility of bisexuals in the marriage jurisprudence. I would be excited to work on a similar brief on behalf of if there were other attorneys/law-students/scholars willing to work on it with me. Do you know of anyone interested to do that?
      – Toby

      • Nathan Rasmussen says:

        I’ve asked several advocacy organizations the same question; you’re the first to reply. I will keep you apprised of anyone else who’s interested. I myself am a linguist, not an attorney or law student, but I am one heck of an editor.

  8. […] the first, to have the opportunity to challenge the myth of the gender binary (and in the case of intersex people, the myth of sex being […]

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