What should I do if my child is not clearly “boy” or “girl”? Sociologist explains.

Paderborn.“Is it a boy or a girl?” New parents are familiar with this issue. However, it cannot be answered unequivocally in all cases. The UN estimates that up to 1.7 percent of children are born intersex.

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In his thesis, sociologist Anike Krämer has dealt with what this means for the affected families.

What is intersex at all?

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Anike Kramer: In biology, there are four physical traits by which sex is currently identified. These are the chromosomes, the hormones, the gonads – that is, the gonads – and the genitals. If all these four characteristics do not clearly point in the direction of “man” or “woman”, one is talking about intersex. Incidentally, intersex has nothing to do with what gender you are sexually attracted to or how you identify yourself.

When do parents usually find out that their child is intersex – right after birth or much later?

After birth, the baby’s genitals may not look as expected. Sometimes things are different, as I found out through interviews with affected parents: the children had hernias in the first year of life and had to have surgery. It turned out that the suspected girls had testicles in the abdomen.

Another important period is puberty, when it becomes clear that the baby’s body is not developing as expected. Then the presumed girl gets beard hair, or the presumed boy gets breasts. It can also be the case that one finds out about intersex much later or not at all.

When families know: “Our child is intersex” – what does it do to the parents?

I have talked to parents who were diagnosed with their child’s gender in the first year of life. Many parents talk about a shock. For they do not know: What exactly does it mean for our lives? For the life of the child, for the upbringing? This is very disturbing for parents.

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What concrete questions then arise?

Diagnosis usually takes place in a medical setting. The doctors are therefore the ones who inform. However, parents initially have few medical questions once they know their child is healthy – which is the case with many intersex children.

Parents have several everyday questions: should we leave the pink wall color in the children’s room as it is? Is it okay if my child puts on clothes now? What toys should I buy for the child? These questions may sound banal, but there is a bigger problem behind them.

Which topic exactly?

This shows how much we adapt our actions to the gender we think the other person is. But: If these rules apply to parents – how do you handle a girl, how about a boy? – fall away, they do not know what to do.

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Parents are afraid that other people will become anxious and worried in the same way. What does this mean for kindergarten? To the school? For friendships, later relationships? What we have planned for our child’s life or simply assumed – in sociology one speaks of a “schedule for life” – must be redesigned.

So parents of intersex children face a lot of questions. What can help parents cope with this?

It helped the parents I interviewed look for intersex or other parents of intersex children. They need role models and want to know how other families with intersex children live. So they can decide if they want to do something similar or completely different. It helps the parents. Self-help groups are a good starting point for this. General counseling centers have also in recent years dealt more and more with the subject.

Parents of intersex children have to make some decisions – for example, which gender to fill …

What worries parents when it comes to entering marital status – whether it is diverse, female, male or no entry – is the consequences that arise from it. Are all checks covered by health insurance – for example if the intersex has a prostate but the entrance is “female”? What about other rights or rules where gender matters? Do I always have to “out” my child, for example at school or at other registrations?

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To person: Anike Krämer is currently researching as a research assistant at the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Paderborn. For her dissertation on parents of everyday experiences of intersex children, she received the second prize in the social science category of the Körber Foundation’s German Study Prize 2021.

RND / dpa

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