Most of us learn in high school biology that a person is either born with XX or XY chromosomes, making them a girl or a boy. Lately, news in the field of athletics has brought this over-simplified version of a person's sex to the forefront, and has sparked conversations about what, exactly, determines if one is a boy or a girl. Here is important information so you can give educated, informed responses to your children's questions.
Caster Semenya has been in sports headlines recently for having her gender questioned. Newspapers world-wide leaked unofficial results of testing and have labeled her the outdated and incorrect term "Hermaphrodite," capitalizing on the unusual nature of her condition and elevating her, in some cases, to a media freak. The benefit we, as parents, can take from this is to increase our knowledge of intersex conditions, and respond to questions and comments from our children in a caring, tolerant, compassionate, and educated way.
Approximately 1 in 1500 individuals are born with some sort of intersex condition, of which there are more than a dozen. For more information about intersex, conditions, and support groups, go here: Intersex Society of North America. Intersex donditions generally refer to a person's physical make up as a male or female--chromosomal, hormonal, genital, etc. While most babies are born with a clear match up between all these factors, as many as 1 in 1000 are not. Some conditions are readily visible at birth (atypical external genitalia, for instance) and some are not (undecended testes, lack of uterus, etc).
Gender, on the other hand, is an assignment given, usually at birth. Is this a "boy" or a "girl"? What we then do to raise this person has profound effects on their psychological health, their social experiences, and their understanding of who they are.
At times, a person with an intersex condition that is not readily visible at birth, is assigned a gender (girl, for instance), and a puberty, alternate hormones kick in (from undecended testes, or other issues for instance), causing a gender crisis of sorts.
Best practice in this area is evolving, but currently recommends restraint from "corrective" surgery at birth. Studies have shown it is best for the child to assign a gender, and allow surgery decisions to be made later in life, when more gender identity information is available. Tests can be done at birth to determine chromosomal conditions, hormones, and other factors that help doctors discern what the likely gender identity will be of the child, even if the genitalia they are born with do not match. Studies show it is less traumatic for the child to have a gender identity and deal with their genitalia issues than to be "corrected" incorrectly.
So, what do you tell your child?
- When the topic comes up, either because you are asking if they've heard these stories or because they are asking you about it, find out what they think they know. Starting with "What have you heard?" will give you a good idea of where their information and misinformation is.
- Let them know that, while most people are born with genitals that match their gender (boys with male genitalia and girls with female genitalia), sometimes, people are born with some version of both.
- Focus on tolerance of individual people, and liking them for who they are inside. Go back to your values of respect, tolerance, and compassion.
- Make sure your child knows that you cannot usually tell from looking at a person if they have an intersex condition. This is generally pretty private information, so it is not likely they will know anyone who is openly struggling with it.
- If they do know someone who has an intersex condition, go to this site for more information and resources: Intersex Society of North America.
What is most important is for us to become and remain educated, so we can act from a place of respect and tolerance when discussing any issues around sexuality.
Amy Johnson, MSW, is a Personal Life and Parent Coach who is passionate about working with parents regarding balance, self-care and faith and sexuality. She is co-author of the book, Parenting by Strengths: A Parent's Guide to Challenging Situations. To read more by Amy, go to Diligent Joy Blog. Amy is also a member of the Best Parent Coaching Directory. Click here to contact Amy.