In 2013, I created a flag that has now travelled the world and is widespread within the intersex population. At the time, I was concerned with inappropriate symbols and iconography used to describe intersex people, often accompanying stories about us – images that have no firm grounding or basis in the history of the intersex movement, or the history of how intersex people have been (and are) treated. I still share those concerns, so I’m glad that the flag offers a constructive and meaningful alternative way to represent intersex people.
The flag is comprised of a golden yellow field, with a purple circle emblem. The colours and circle don’t just avoid referencing gender stereotypes, like the colours pink and blue, they seek to completely avoid use of symbols that have anything to do with gender at all. Instead the circle is unbroken and unornamented, symbolising wholeness and completeness, and our potentialities. We are still fighting for bodily autonomy and genital integrity, and this symbolises the right to be who and how we want to be.
Intersex people are born with variations of physical sex characteristics that don’t fit medical or social norms for female or male bodies. Intersex variations can be determined prenatally, at birth, at puberty, and at other times, such as when attempting to conceive a child.
Intersex people may have any sex assignment, sexual orientation or gender identity. People born with intersex variations face human rights violations before we have agency to freely express an identity. Sex assignment (if evident at birth) and unnecessary deferrable medical interventions are grounded in gender stereotypes and ideas about physical normality. Medical interventions are also intended to construct or reinforce heterosexual, cisgender identities.
Recent debates about the flag
Early in June 2019, I woke to a furore about Budweiser in the UK branding a cup with the intersex flag, and an ambiguous description by that company that I don’t much like as it aligns with some common misconceptions.
Pinkwashing and poor use of words are things that happen when you make an image freely available and it has since become popular: I can’t now control use of the flag, but I hope Budweiser improve their language and, more than that, resource work led by intersex people.
Other debates about the flag have focused on my use in 2013 of the word hermaphrodite. I’ve listened to some of those debates, changed the word, and added a statement. Here it is in full:
The term hermaphrodite originates in Greek mythology. In Roman, Canon, and later Western law, hermaphrodites were recognised as either female or male depending on predominant characteristics. It is only with the pathologisation of intersex traits that the term narrowed to take on its current biological meaning, to refer to an organism with both female and male reproductive capacity. That change in meaning was associated with the introduction of pejorative clinical terminology, of “pseudo hermaphrodites” and “true hermaphrodites”, still occasionally used today.
These different definitions have coexisted, typically aligned with different views about who intersex people are, and how we should be treated. Often these views are ahistorical, and primarily concerned with our meaning in relation to other people or concerns. Too few of those perspectives acknowledge and accept the diversity of the intersex population, or our advocacy demands for self-determination about what happens to our bodies.
IHRA has long stated that the term is best only used by people born with variations of sex characteristics. I am aware of individuals who reclaim the term, and individuals who find it offensive. I have amended the text because of the latter, but in doing so I need to make two points:
- as advocates, we need to become familiar with the history of the medicalisation of intersex bodies, including debates about nomenclature, and we should encourage other people to become familiar with these histories and processes; many of the same characteristics of debates about terminology in previous centuries remain evident today.
- informed debates about these histories and their impacts today are very welcome, but those debates should also recognise that it is ok for people born with intersex variations to use the term.
Thanks to everyone else at IHRA for your forbearance here.
Information about the flag
The flag was first shared online on 4 July 2013.
Here’s the post on the intersex flag on the Intersex Human Rights Australia site: https://ihra.org.au/22773/an-intersex-flag/
It was formally licensed under the Creative Commons Zero 1.0 Universal license on 18 December 2013.
Field (background): #FFD800, R: 255 G: 216 B: 0.
Emblem: #7902AA, R: 121 G: 2 B: 170.