Harvard med school class isn’t about ‘trans infants’
CLAIM: A class at Harvard Medical School trains students to treat transgender infants.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The Harvard class, an elective about health care for LGBTQ patients, discusses intersex infants in the context of their physical development. Intersex is an umbrella term that refers to people with naturally occurring differences in sex traits or reproductive anatomy. The portion of the course that focuses on infants does not cover gender identity or sexual orientation and is one day in the month-long course, the class’s professor told The Associated Press.
THE FACTS: The Ivy League university is the latest to be subjected to intense scrutiny online for providing medical treatments for transgender minors, in a pattern that took hold throughout 2022.
In recent days, conservative websites and online commentators have distorted the content of one Harvard Medical School class, as social media users point to it as an extreme example of gender-affirming health care.
“Harvard is teaching medical students about transgender infants,” wrote one Twitter user, whose post had gained almost 10,000 likes as of Tuesday. Another commentator on Facebook shared screenshots of a misleading blog post titled “Harvard Training Medical Students to Treat ‘Trans Infants’” with the caption: “In case no one told you, they’re after your kids.”
But these claims misrepresent what the class actually teaches about infants. The course – titled “Caring for Patients with Diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities, and Sex Development” – teaches only about the physical development of babies who are born intersex, not babies’ gender identity or sexual orientation, according to Dr. Alex Keuroghlian, the associate professor who teaches the class.
The term intersex describes people born with reproductive organs, hormones or other traits that don’t fit typical definitions of male or female. These conditions may or may not be noticeable at birth, explained Dr. Arlene Baratz, who is the medical and research affairs coordinator for the intersex advocacy group InterConnect.
A transgender person is someone whose gender identity — whether they feel like a girl, boy, neither or both — differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. The term transgender is not synonymous with intersex.
Parents and families of intersex children “have questions about health implications of these physical variations,” Keuroghlian told the AP. “Medical students need to know how to provide this care.”
One day of the month-long Harvard course is spent on infants, Keuroghlian told the AP. Students work in Boston-area clinics that serve a high volume of LGBTQ patients, and they also study how to care for non-infant patients and focus on disciplines such as psychiatry, endocrinology, dermatology and infectious disease. The class has been held since 2016, and one or two students may enroll monthly, Keuroghlian said.
Physical differences in an intersex infant’s genitals “can be obvious in a newborn and usually triggers a cascade of medical attention including an evaluation to discover the underlying cause,” Baratz said in an email. Some of these conditions, such as those involving the urinary tract, can be life-threatening. But “diverse genital appearance, in itself, is not a risk to health.”
While cosmetic surgeries may be offered to “minimize parental anxiety” about an intersex infant’s future appearance, they can bring disastrous physical and emotional consequences for a child later on, Baratz said.
Sean Saifa Wall, a co-founder of the Intersex Justice Project, said that an infant’s physical sex characteristics are apparent long before they have a sense of what gender is, or which gender they feel like. He said conservative critics were “purposefully conflating” the two.
Older children who experience gender dysphoria — feelings of distress about their assigned gender — may seek out transition-related health care to relieve those feelings once they’ve reached puberty. But surgeries and hormones are not given to young children or infants for this purpose, despite some misleading rhetoric.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at the AP.