In my grassroots work around gender, I’ve heard several stories about people with intersex variations being told that they are the “only one.” While each individual diagnosis may be relatively rare, the sum total of intersex variations is as common as red hair–between one and two percent of the population.
With an enrollment of over 2,000, this statistically equates to the possibility that Drew probably has at least 20, and perhaps even 40 students, faculty, or staff with some kind of an intersex variation.
Dr Traci West, Professor of Christian Ethics and African American Studies in Drew’s Theological School confirms this, noting, “Almost every time I teach about intersex, someone from the class comes up to me and privately shares that they have an intersex variation.”
When we think of intersex—if we think of intersex—most of us think of physical differences in sex characteristics that are obvious at birth. However, some intersex variations are not discovered until puberty or even later. For instance, genetic testing done for reasons of fertility or even sport is another time when intersex variations are frequently discovered. Still, the physical details of intersex bodies are only one part of the story.
Stigma, shame, and secrecy around these natural physical diversities has a variety of impacts on mental health. While stopping unnecessary surgeries on children is a prominent and important objective, the screening of the film Stories of Intersex and Faith sponsored by the Spectrum theological student caucus on March 19, 2022 highlighted the diverse psycho-social-spiritual struggles that can accompany such a diagnosis.
Children are often not given adequate information to help them process what the surgeries, frequent doctor visits, and invasive medical examinations mean. Depression, suicidal ideation, and low self-esteem are just some of the reported impacts of secrecy and an overall lack of psycho-social support.
For instance, one of the profiles in the film is of Marissa Adams, whose genitalia was surgically altered by doctors when she was just 18 months old. Marissa shares that she “did not feel normal growing up at all,” even though doctors have argued that the whole point of such early surgeries is to help children with intersex variations to feel “normal.” Marissa was not informed about her surgeries or natural differences until she was 14 years old (as a part of treatment for a severe eating disorder).
Unfortunately, even medical education tends to overlook “disorders of sex development” as they are called in the field. Members of the intersex community prefer language like “differences” or “variations.” In any case, newly diagnosed patients and their families often find only limited resources. Meanwhile, many religious communities are entirely ill-equipped to talk about issues of sex and gender. That only adds to the anxiety around disclosure.
“Many gender and sexual inclusion conversations neglect the presence and needs—medical, social, and spiritual—of intersex people,” notes Dr Kate Ott who is a Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew.
Yet, Drew University is on its way to being a more affirming space just by having this film available to support conversations—from the Theological School and Medical Humanities to Psychology and Pre-Med.
Drew librarian, Dr. Jesse Mann notes, “This a valuable and timely addition to our library holdings. The documentary and the accompanying curriculum provide an illuminating, complex, and sympathetic introduction to questions of sexuality, gender, justice, and religious belief.”
The film Stories of Intersex and Faith (with Korean and Spanish subtitles) is now available through the Drew University library. You can also find a video recording of the March 19 panel discussion at the same location together with the related six-session video curriculum, “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: Scripture and the New Science of Gender.”
We have the opportunity to work together to interrupt the secrecy and stigma around intersex variations—for our friends and community members at Drew, as well as for the families we hope to serve in the future. I invite you to join me in learning more!
Find out more about Chris Paige at chrispaige.com.