Intersex: How Should Parents Behave?

Intersex: How Should Parents Behave?

© dimid_86 / Shutterstock

For parents, an intersex child can be a huge shock at first. But for the children, their intersexuality is often less bad, says Professor Dr. Hertha Richter-Appelt, sex researcher at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf.

BRIGITTE: Almost every day a child is born in Germany who cannot be said to be a girl or a boy. Some of the parents feel like they have given birth to a monster – how can you take that feeling away from them?

Dr. Hertha Richter-Appelt: For most parents, an intersex child is a huge shock at first. A doctor or psychologist should try to relieve them of fear. It should make it clear that, with a few exceptions, it is not a medical emergency.

BRIGITTE: How can parents get through the time when they leave the gender of their child open?

Dr. Hertha Richter-Appelt: Parents should never leave the psychosocial gender open. You must – depending on which of the two sexes predominate – raise the child either as a boy or as a girl. So that they know which toilet they can go to and whether they can go to the girls ‘or boys’ group while playing. This is very important for a child.

BRIGITTE: Will a child be harmed if their parents decide against an operation for the time being?

Dr. Hertha Richter-Appelt: I think it’s impossible to raise an intersex child without some difficulty. I have spoken to many intersex people who are unhappy that they had surgery as a child. Nobody knows if they would complain if nothing had been done. It is important to consult experts and take a close look at each individual case. With some children, what they want to be does not emerge until puberty. You should therefore wait with operations until the child has a say in the decision-making process – unless the operation is vital.

BRIGITTE: But until that happens, everyone will notice that the child looks different.

Dr. Hertha Richter-Appelt: It’s often less bad for children than for parents. Adults in particular need to be told how best to deal with the situation.

BRIGITTE: How often does it happen that children who have had an operation later struggle with it?

Dr. Hertha Richter-Appelt: There are many intersex people who are dissatisfied with what has been done with them. In the rarest of cases, however, they express the wish to undergo surgery. Many would simply like to have a more inconspicuous body, for example they complain of broad shoulders, breasts, large feet or a stocky build. These people struggle with being affected at all.

BRIGITTE: Is there such a thing as a third gender, a hybrid identity?

Dr. Hertha Richter-Appelt: There are people who say they feel in between. They do not want to be called either a man or a woman and are calling for the introduction of a third gender. I don’t follow this because there are so many different reasons why a person was born intersex, each of them feeling different and seeing themselves differently. If you were to assign each individual constellation to a specific gender, we would be seven or more groups. In general, one can say: an intersex person remains both for a lifetime, with some it is more pronounced, with others it is only very easy to notice. Because no matter what the sexual organs and body of this person look like or what has been achieved with operations and hormones – the brain also plays an important role when it comes to gender. And nothing can be changed about that.

Interview: Katrin Schmiedekampf Photo: Getty Images BRIGITTE 02/10