Tag Archives: gender

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 suggest 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 conceive.

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.

Transgender Children Deserve a Warm Welcome Back: Here’s How (and why this benefits all students)

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The roster says they’re a she, but… they look like a he. What do I call them?

I’ve met numerous educators who express annoyance at not getting a heads-up from administrators that they have a transgender (or gender variant or gender creative or gender nonconforming) child in their class. And, understandably so. We care about our students, and want to treat them all with respect. Calling her ‘him’ can be awkward at best, and deeply offensive in many cases. Pronouns are incredibly personal, so it’s important that we know what our students want to be called.

We can’t necessarily tell someone’s gender identity (internal; how they feel) by their gender expression (external; what they show through dress/appearance/behaviour) or their assigned gender (assigned at birth; usually based on external sex characteristics). Additionally, some of the software programs that schools use to keep track of student records are outdated and don’t include a function to update students’ gender data as necessary. This could lead to inadvertently outing a transgender child to their peers. Don’t rely on your roster to give you the correct information about gender pronouns.

Instead, let me suggest a simple, but powerful getting-to-know-you routine for the start of every term: ask students (all students) what their pronouns are. You can begin by offering yours as an example (i.e. I use she/her/hers or they/them/theirs, etc.) This exercise eliminates gaffes without singling anybody out.

I gave a training to graduate education students on this topic. One participant wondered aloud whether it was worth the “trouble” for the “zero point zero, zero, zero, one percent” of students concerned. First, I answer that sure – this is a fairly simple strategy to create a safer space for your students, even if it’s only a small number who benefit. Second, however, this person’s statistics were way off. Many more people (about 0.6% of the U.S. population, which equates to 1.4 million Americans) identify as transgender[1]. I can assure you that, over the course of a full career as an educator, you have taught, and will continue to teach, numerous transgender and gender nonconforming children. You may not always know who they are, but there are transgender people in every culture.

The practice of recognizing students’ gender identity can have a significant impact on their well-being. Transgender kids are some of our highest risks for being harassed at school[2], a range of related risk-taking behaviours, and both physical and mental health issues, including suicidality[3]. Research shows that supportive school contexts can mitigate this disparity[4]. Asking students about their pronouns suggests that you are supportive of gender diversity, and could be a literal life-saving gesture for a child in need.

Plus, all students benefit from learning about diversity. Consider if we only taught minority groups about issues of oppression, and excluded dominant groups from this conversation. White children would not learn about slavery. Christian children would not learn about the Holocaust. That would be absurd, and avoiding gender identity issues with your cisgender (gender identity matches assigned gender) students is similarly exclusive and nonsensical.

It is a privilege for cisgender people to be fairly certain that others will correctly guess their pronouns just by looking at them. When we, as professional educators, question socially-constructed assumptions about gender, we exercise cultural humility, we establish that our classroom is a considerate place, we take a step toward rejecting gender hierarchy, and we set a positive example of inclusivity for the students in our class. This enhances the learning environment for all.

I recommend repeating this welcoming routine at the start of each term, and letting students know that they may update their pronouns with you at any time. If you’re still uncertain about how to get started, some resources with tips and FAQs are available here, here, and here. Proactively asking for students’ pronouns is best practice, and should be systematically implemented in all international school classrooms.

[1] Flores, A. R., Herman, J. L., Gates, G. J., & Brown, T. N. T. (2016). How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States? Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.

[2] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C., & Danischewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.

[3] James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

[4] Poteat, V. P., DiGiovanni, C. D., Sinclair, K. O., Koenig, B. W., & Russell, S. T. (2012). Gay-Straight Alliances are associated with student health: A Multischool comparison of LGBTQ and heterosexual youth. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23(2), 319-330.