Ask Lambda Legal | March 2016

By Paul D. Castillo, Lambda Legal Staff Attorney, March 2016 Issue.

Dear Ask Lambda Legal,

What does “intersex” mean?

Photo courtesy of

Lambda Legal: Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that do not fit typical binary notions of bodies designated “male” or “female.”

In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth, while in others they are not apparent until puberty. Some intersex variations may not be visibly apparent at all.

Experts estimate that between 0.05 percent and 1.7 percent of people are born with intersex traits.

Moments after a child is born, the general practice in the United States is for a physician to visually assess the newborn’s genitalia and assign the newborn’s sex as “male” or “female” on that basis. But sex is much more complex, and is determined by a number of factors, including chromosomes, gonads, hormones, genitalia and gender identity.

A person’s gender identity, meaning the innate sense of being male, female, both or neither, is the most important determinant of that person’s sex. Although there is not yet one definitive explanation for what determines gender identity, recent research points to the influence of biological factors, most notably the role of sex differentiation in the brain in gender identity development.

When a child is born with mixed or ambiguous markers of sex, doctors often assign a sex they guess is likely to match the child’s gender identity. But it is impossible to predict with certainty how an intersex infant’s gender identity will develop. As with any other person, an intersex person eventually may identify as male, female, both or neither.

On Oct. 26, 2015, Lambda Legal filed Zzyym v. Kerry, a challenge to secure a U.S. passport without a “male” or “female” gender marker for our client, Dana Zzyym.

Zzyym (pictured), a U.S. Navy veteran who served in Beirut and the Persian Gulf, is an intersex person who identifies as neither “male” nor “female,” and uses the singular gender-neutral pronouns they, them and their.

For more information on Zzyym v. Kerry, visit

For an Intersex Fact Sheet, published by the United Nations Office of the High Commission of Human Rights on Sept. 7, 2015, visit

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