Way back, intersex people or people medically known to have DSDs (Disorders of Sex Development) were referred to as hermaphrodites. However, this has been proven wrong by intersex activists since, it is inappropriately used and worst of all dehumanizing. Intersex (and in some instances, DSDs) are terms that are preferred and generally acceptable among rights activists and rights-based medical practitioners. The word “hermaphrodite” is to a very small extent used by some people who are still ignorant about sex development variations, particularly in the developing world. But also in some instances, the term “hermaphrodite” is spitefully used by people who want to stigmatize and be abusive to people with intersex conditions.
Technically, intersex refers to the congenital deviations of the reproductive and sexual system from what is typical. On the other hand, hermaphrodite as far as biology is concerned means a plant or an organism that fully has both male and female sets of reproductive organs (like snails and earth worms). It is important to note that intersex is an umbrella term that covers a range of conditions related to sex differentiation. In relation, it’s important to note that there are some conditions that are not to do with one’s genitalia like Turner’s syndrome and Klinefelter’s syndrome but more to do with one’s chromosomal and gonadal make up.
Typically, people have two sex determining chromosomes one of which is what is called an “X” chromosome and the second of which may be either another “X” or a “Y” chromosome.
In a typical sequence, two X chromosomes in combination in each cell of a person produce a female bodily type and an X and Y chromosome in combination produce a male bodily type. As such, intersexuality results from mismatches in these patterns and combinations. These mismatches result in medically termed conditions such as the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, Congenital Adrenal hyperplasia, Hypospadias, turner’s syndrome etc.
Many people – including intersex people themselves – refer to themselves as having “two private parts”. But humanly speaking, this cannot occur in the nature of a human being. A human being cannot have two sets of genital organs (male and female) which fully function at the same time. What a human being will have are genitals that are either indeterminate, or ambiguous in appearance and functionality – lying in between female and male. Still, an intersex person may have a set of genitals for one sex but have internal organs for another sex – for example an individual with male genitals may have internal ovaries and empty testicle sacks or one with female genitals may have internal testes instead of ovaries, or in some instances, may have one ovary and one testis ( a condition known as ovotestes).
Sadly, even medical practitioners – including birth attendants – have unknowingly referred to people with intersex conditions as hermaphrodites because intersex bodies do not neatly conform to what they define as the typical male or female bodies.
SIPD Uganda, seeks to demystify these myths, which are misleading, tormenting and stigmatizing. This mythological term is harmful and abusive to children and people with these conditions and causes parents of these children to panic. It’s therefore not an appropriate term to apply when referring to intersex people and so dissuade people from using it. It is demeaning and dehumanizing.
In conclusion, it’s permissible to say that snails and earthworms are hermaphrodites, humans are not.