Original Research

Unintelligibility, personhood and curriculum silences of intersex bodies in the Life Orientation high school classroom: A case study

Anthony Brown
The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa | Vol 18, No 1 | a1099 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/td.v18i1.1099 | © 2022 Anthony Brown | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 06 June 2021 | Published: 23 March 2022

About the author(s)

Anthony Brown, Department of Educational Psychology, Faculty of Education, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa


Despite an increase in the research that promotes affirmative gender and sexual diversity in the South African Life Orientation (LO) education, there remains an uncomfortable silence on intersex bodies. In the absence of distinctive binary classifications of external genitalia, learners with variant intersex characteristics are incapable of integration into socio-educational environments. This article explores how individuals with variant intersex characteristics learn about the self in relation to society within LO lessons. It extrapolates factors that influence the educational and psycho-social agency in and around the classroom. This phenomenological study has drawn on in-depth interviews with six individuals with variant intersex characteristics post schooling. The evidence shows that the LO curriculum privileges distinct genital developments as a marker of normal human development and means of gender identification. Previous studies found that the mutually exclusive biological sex characteristics drawn from XY (male) and XX (female) chromosomal development were major determinants of social sexual and gender embodiment in puberty lessons. Lensed through the theory of unintelligibility, bodies that deviated from this normative development were seen as ambiguous and derogatively referred to as hermaphrodites. Their personal identities were marred with constructions of freaks and abnormality. Vilifying personhood rhetoric impacted the social skills of intersex learners and their peers. Learners with intersex bodies were uncomfortable to engage with the gender binary curriculum content, facilities and school culture. Silences on intersex bodies in the LO curriculum made these learners feel invisible which led to early school dropout. This article argues for the integration of intersex knowledge that affirms, humanises and protects all gender, sexual expressions and sex characteristics in the school context. The LO curriculum is well-positioned to disrupt problematic constructions of intersex bodies as deficit and embarrassing by including variant sex characteristic developments as a norm.


intersex characteristics; unintelligibility; distinctive genitalia; Life Orientation; compulsory heteronormativity; comprehensive sexuality education


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Crossref Citations

1. ‘Acceptance of diversity’…but not too much? (Restricted) pathways towards transgender and intersex inclusivity in sex education curriculum guidelines
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