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Clearing Up Misconceptions About Intersex Conditions

Dr. Christopher Lewis (at left) and Jordan Braxton explain the intersex condition and its nuances on Thursday's "St. Louis on the Air."
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
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Being born intersex isn’t limited to ambiguous genitalia. There’s a plethora of intersex conditions, about 150. Some of them require surgical intervention, some don’t. And while the condition is common, there are still a lot of misconceptions about it. Ignorance can lead parents to allow surgical interventions that strip away the autonomy of individuals and expose them to irreversible physical damage. 

Dr. Christopher Lewis explained that even medical professionals can get it wrong. He is a pediatric endocrinologist at Washington University in St. Louis and medical director of the Differences of Sex Development Clinic at the St. Louis Children's Hospital. 

While distinctly different concepts, many confuse intersex persons with transgender individuals. And since few medical providers feel comfortable having discussions related to biological sex and gender identity, it can impact intersex persons' health.

“[Intersex] is a group of medical conditions in which someone's anatomic anatomy, chromosome, gonads or internal or external structures can be different than what we assume someone may be on a range of male to female, in terms of sex,” Lewis said. But even sex is not binary. 

“Most people assume that sex is male or female, and we know specifically within the medical community that that's simply not the case. There are a lot of variations and shades between male and female that people are born into that we have to have that discussion about how that may impact that child's life and health.”

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Lewis joined host Sarah Fenske to dispel those misconceptions. They were also joined by Jordan Braxton of Pride St. Louis, who was born intersex but didn’t find out until her 50s. 

Braxton found out about her condition after a doctor ran a few blood tests, a moment she describes as a lightbulb going on. But the road to recovery was still a ways to go. She found out she was in menopause and had to start hormone therapy, triggering puberty as well. 

“I never felt masculine, I always felt feminine. … So it just made everything clear to me. When I started on the hormones ... my mind and body weren't in the same space. [But] now, everything's fine. I'm 58, and I have never been healthier and happier,” she said. 

Listen to the full conversation to learn more about the intersex condition and Jordan Braxton’s experience: 

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.