Tag Archives: intersex

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.