Intersex Students

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“Alright, boys and girls!” It’s a common enough call by international educators to their charges. But it makes me cringe. This cry crystalizes a gender binary, implying that there are two categories that all children must fit into. Not only is the male/female dichotomy false from a gender identity perspective, it is biologically incorrect, and it leaves some students out.

Intersex 101
About one in 1,500 children are born with sex organs ambiguous enough that a specialist is called in to determine if they should be assigned as male or female[1]. Indeed, up to 1.7% of the global population is estimated to be intersex, meaning they do not meet the biological norms – in one way or another – of what we consider to be male or female[2]. Being intersex is about as common as having red hair[3]. This means that each of the past international schools I worked at are statistically likely to have about 3-5 intersex children in their student bodies (not counting faculty and staff) on any given year.

The ‘Nature’ of Sex
Biological sex is a common argument used to support ‘natural’ gender divisions. While the elements of what we consider to be biological sex are technically measurable, the concept of a strict male/female binary is scientifically unsupported. Though one’s external anatomy may suggests a certain set of sex chromosomes (do you know for sure what yours are?), there are variations they don’t tell you about in health class[4]. For example, some people have an extra X chromosome, and some an extra Y. Some people have only an X, and some carry XY in some cells and XX in others. Even those who have what we think of as the standard XX or XY chromosomes may respond to hormones in such a way that leads to the development of secondary sex characteristics and genitalia other than what we typically associate with that chromosome set. Some people find out that their chromosomes are not what they thought when they go through puberty, or if they try to start a family.

Consider the case of Maria Jose Martinez-Patino, the former Olympic athlete from Spain who, when she forgot to bring her birth certificate to the games and had to do a routine cheek swab to prove she was a woman, found out that she actually had the XY chromosomes typically linked to men. Martinez-Patino failed the ‘gender test’, and was disqualified from the games, though she had always lived and functioned as a woman, and had no reason to feel she wasn’t one. Biological sex is not black and white.

“Alright, Scholars”
Let us discontinue the archaic practice of segregating students into metaphorically pink and blue boxes. These are social constructs that restrict children from actualizing the nuanced individuals that they are. Rather than addressing a group as boys and girls, consider some inclusive alternatives: Students. Scholars. Class 2B. Dr. de Beauvoir’s class. Hufflepuff House. Dolphins (or your school’s mascot). Sophomores. Sixth graders. Learners. Leaders. Explorers. Investigators. Inventors. The reason I get out of bed every morning. Travelers. Readers. Writers. Scientists. Artists. Creators. Example-Setters. Collaborators. Our future.

How do you inclusively address a group of students?

[1] The Phall-O-Meter pokes fun at the serious practice of measuring infants’ genitals to determine their social acceptability, and possibly refer them for surgery

[2] Meyer-Bahlburg, H.L. (2005). Introduction: Gender dysphoria and gender change in persons with intersectionality. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34(4), 371-373.

[3] Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[4] Dreger, A.D. (1998). A history of intersexuality: From the age of gonads to the age of consent. University Publishing Group: Hagerstown, MD.

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10 Responses to Intersex Students

  1. Jane says:

    This is a helpful article on the needs of students with intersex variations: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14681811.2016.1149808?journalCode=csed20

    • Emily Meadows says:

      Dear Jane,

      Thank you for sharing this article. I’ve found that Australia seems to be ahead of much of the world in acknowledging intersex people, though this piece shows that there is still much work to be done in supporting intersex students.

      Sincerely,

      Emily

  2. Steven Bentley says:

    Hi all,
    I realize gender and gender issues may be new to many people. It’s as if we know there’s only left and right sides, then we hear that there’s also middle.
    We think, “No, there’s only left (hand) and right (hand). There is no middle (hand).”
    Of course, it is difficult to learn a new thing and adjust to a new idea.
    I think we can all agree there are people who are ambidextrous (can use both left and right hands). So, there are also people who are in the “middle” of male and female.
    Just because we don’t always notice left and right-handedness and especially ambidextrous students, does not mean it does not exist.
    To Dominique Vanders: Red-headed people do not need any different considerations.
    However, a student with a mobility issue, such as a wheel-chair bound student does require special consideration. We should treat all students with respect and equality. However, we should *recognize* that a wheel-chair bound student requires special considerations, such as an elevator in a multi-floor school, ramps where there are stairs, extra time to move around the school, and equipment not above or below his/her reach. I would think that wheel-chair bound students make up a small percent of most school’s student body, but we should *never* dismiss them due to being a minority!
    Lastly, we teach each and every student. We recognize and celebrate our diverse students. We honor ourselves and profession with supportive, guiding compassion to our students–all of our students.

    • Emily Meadows says:

      Dear Steven,

      Thank you for your thoughtful additions to my post. You make excellent points, and certainly show yourself to be an advocate for all students, particularly those who need considerate educators the most.

      Sincerely,

      Emily

  3. KFG says:

    Fascinating. I appreciate the scientific explanations and references. I realized a few years ago that my “harmless” jokes to middle schoolers about getting a boyfriend or girlfriend could be unintententionally alienating and indirectly ostracizing kids who are not heterosexual. Why did it take me so long? I will definitely become more aware of my language after reading this…and will use this text with my students.

    • Emily Meadows says:

      Dear Reader,

      Thank you for your readership, and for your thoughtful comments.

      It is certainly better late than never; indeed, the vast majority of us did not grow up with models of inclusive language around gender and sexuality, so we are just learning how to do this ourselves as professionals.

      Your students – all of them! – will benefit from a teacher who is open to new information, reflective of their practice, and sensitive to diversity. They are lucky to have you.

      Sincerely,

      Emily

  4. Dominique Vanders says:

    The absurd considerations of the west need not be made worldwide. There are very few redheads because there are very few Europeans on a worldwide basis. I’m not changing the way I view gender to accommodate such a statistically small group of people. You guys make an issue where none is necessary. Instead of thinking about how we can change norms to accommodate extreme outliers how about focusing on teaching? This is unnecessarily confusing our young people. There are two genders and two sexes and frankly that works.

    • Emily Meadows says:

      Dear Dominique,

      Thank you for your readership.

      For many who benefit from cisgender privilege, two genders and two sexes “works”. However, I would argue that the documented negative impacts of stigma for children who do not meet this strict social binary are harmful enough that we, as professional educators, should take note. Even if 1.7% of the population feels small to you, many schools will expect that educators treat every single student with respect; rarely will school leadership accept that faculty ostracise a portion of their students, no matter how small. When a family entrusts their little one to our care, they deserve to know that their child will be included.

      Sincerely,

      Emily

  5. S M says:

    Pretty much country-wide, in nearly every scenario, Turks use “Friends” to address a group. It’s a great way to start class. After 7 years in Istanbul, I have adopted this and will never go back to anything else.

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