Germany has become the first European country to legally recognize a third gender at birth — a new law allows babies born with both male and female characteristics to have their gender left blank on birth certificates. This third option, German legislators reason, will make it so that parents no longer feel pressured to make a rash decision regarding infant sex assignment surgery.
As many as one in 1,500 people are born intersex. Because parents have to select a gender in order to register their child with the authorities, some believe it's in their baby's best interest to surgically assign a male or female sex immediately. However, many intersex advocates argue that the operations are damaging and unnecessary. Since gender assignment is a monumental and very personal decision, it should be left to the intersex individual to decide what s/he wants and whether that even includes surgery. As Katina Schweizer from Hamburg University puts it, "Intersexuality is not a disease. It is a variant of nature. It is a term that describes many phenomena. There are forms that come with the need to treat the condition. But when it is about cosmetic surgery of the genitals then one should wait long enough until the persons can take their own decisions."
Under the new law, German passports will have a third designation of X, alongside M and F. It's a wonderful start, but some critics think it doesn't go far enough. While Silvan Agius of IGLA-Europe approves of the law for providing visibility for intersex issues, he takes issue with the fact that "it does not address the surgeries and the medicalization of intersex people and that's not good. That has go change," he told the BBC.
"[Intersex people] have been erased by the medical and legal establishment, and babies are still being operated on routinely," agrees Sarah Graham, intersex woman and counselor. "Often these operations are not necessary for the child's development. Sometimes they take away fertility and sexual responsiveness. But they're done to make culture feel better. They're done to reinforce these boxes of male and female."
"Germany adopts third gender law" [Al Jazeera]
"Germany approves third gender option for intersex newborns" [Euronews]
"Germany allows 'indeterminate' gender at birth" [BBC]
Image via Angela Waye/Shutterstock.