Germany introduces ‘third sex’ option at birth
Every year, thousands of babies are born who are biologically neither male nor female. Now some countries are recognising a “third sex”. Are gender distinctions less rigid than we think?
“Is it a boy or a girl?” If Hollywood is to be believed, that is the first question on the lips of countless new parents. But in a significant minority of cases the answer is far from clear.
Most babies, of course, are born with physical characteristics that give a fairly reliable indication of what sex they are. But around one in two thousand babies emerge from the womb with an “indeterminate gender”. In their physical appearance, their genetic make-up, or both, male and female characteristics are mixed.
So, boy or girl? In most countries, the parents must quickly choose: birth certificates usually ask for the child’s gender, and the decision has legal implications later in life. But Germany has settled on an alternative route. From now on, parents whose babies are not obviously male of female will be given the option of leaving the gender open-ended.
Instead of an M or an F entered on their birth certificates, these children will get an X. And although some of these infants will choose a traditional gender later in life – based on either their personal feelings or the way their body develops – they will also have the option of retaining their intersex identity.
Germany is the first European country to introduce a so-called “third sex”. But other nations have taken similar steps. Australia has allowed citizens to be gender neutral since May, while in parts of South Asia a third gender called “hijra” with a long history of suffering oppression and abuse has been granted legal status in India and Pakistan.
Many intersex people welcome this move. One described how he felt his gender had been surgically manufactured because of the pressure to fit into a conventional category. “I will remain a patchwork created by doctors, bruised and scarred,” he said.
But not all campaigners for intersex awareness have welcomed the move.
Still others argue that this law does not go nearly far enough. It’s not just the biologically “indeterminate” who should get to choose their gender, they say: there are countless people out there who don’t feel totally male or totally female, and none of them should be shoehorned into one category or another.
The bare fact is, some say, that society is built around a binary model of gender. Children who are told that they don’t fit into either category will grow up confused and insecure. They will be bullied at school and alienated by everything from clothes shops to public toilets. An artificial gender is better than none at all.
Then it is our expectations that need to adapt, counter others: not everybody fits neatly into one sexual identity or another, and we need to start accepting that truth. It is absolutely right for the law to recognise that some babies are born mixed.
- Is it right for the law to divide everybody into male and female categories?
- Does a person’s biology always determine their gender?
- Think of one person from each gender in popular culture who resembles a male or female stereotype. Do you think people like this exist in reality?
- What is gender? Write your own definition and compare with the rest of the class.
Some People Say...
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”Simone de Beauvoir
What do you think?
Q & A
- I can’t imagine being uncertain of my own gender.
- Perhaps not. But it’s not quite as simple as you think: a lot of experts claim that sex is not as clear cut as we tend to think. You can have male chromosomes and female genetalia, for instance. And even those who are clearly one sex can have varying degrees of masculinity and femininity.
- So where does that leave us? Might someone be, say, 80% female or 80% male?
- Some would say so! But that’s a contentious idea, of course. What’s certain is that you should never feel like your choices are constricted by the sex you were born with. You should feel free to be the person you want to be, regardless of your body or your genes.
- Fairly reliable
- Not totally reliable, however: it’s not uncommon for a baby to be born with one set of sexual characteristics and then develop into a different gender upon reaching puberty.
- One in two thousand
- That might seem like a small number, but in fact it means that a country the size of Britain is likely to contain tens of thousands of people whose biological sex is unclear.
- Legal implications
- Although countries like Germany and the UK generally consider men and women to be equal in the eyes of the law, there are still numerous important laws that take gender into account.
- A mixture of eunuchs who have been castrated early in life, men who choose to dress and behave in traditionally female ways and people who were born with an indeterminate sex. Hijras have historically had a very low social status, often living in poverty and being forced to earn a living as sex workers.
- Surgically manufactured
- Children born with both male and female gentitals often undergo surgery after parents have decided what gender they will be brought up as. Some research suggests this surgery can cause serious trauma.
- Consisting of two options or parts.