Germany has become the first country in Europe to allow parents to check one of three boxes for gender on their child’s birth certificate: “male,” “female,” or “blank.” The new option is intended to accommodate the parents of intersex newborns; i.e., those whose reproductive or sexual anatomy does not appear to fit the traditional definitions of male or female. The children will be allowed to choose “male” or “female” later in life, but they will not be required to. This will all go into effect November 1st.
While the law says nothing about gender ID in passports, equality activists are celebrating it as a tremendous step forward. According to Silvan Agius of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, the European Union has been slow to act on issues of gender identity. “Germany’s move will put more pressure on Brussels,” Agius told Der Spiegel. “That can only be a good thing.”
However, not everyone in the intersex community is celebrating the idea of a third gender box. Creating a new category, they argue, is to give in to the idea of narrowly defined categories. Instead of turning the gender binary into a triad, why not loosen the definitions of “male” and “female” to include those with all sorts of bodies? Many people with intersex conditions have a perfect sense of belonging when it comes to gender – they only feel alienated when others insist they don’t belong.
And while they often cooperate politically, intersex people should never be confused with transgender, transsexual, or genderqueer people. The Intersex Society of North America states, “Most people with intersex conditions come to medical attention because doctors or parents notice something unusual about their bodies. In contrast, people who are transgender have an internal experience of gender identity that is different from most people.” The ISNA’s history of intersex offers much information about the long medical tradition, and resulting problems, of conflating and confusing the two.
Professor Alice Dreger explains that cases wherein intersex individuals also qualify as transgender because they elect to transition from the gender assigned to them at birth—this is essentially the plot of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex—are quite rare. Dreger notes, “Far more often, the concerns of intersex and transgender people represent opposite sides of the same coin: intersex people get surgeries they don’t want, and transgender people can’t get the surgeries they do want.” The surgeries many intersex people regret having undergone in childhood are primarily cosmetic, removing or adding tissue only for the sake of “normalizing” the appearance of their genitals, and at the expense of sensation and function.
Another all too common problem is the concealment of the patient’s intersex condition by her parents and doctors, leaving her unaware for as long as possible and discouraged from asking the questions she might begin to have about her anatomy. In her essay “Twisted Lies,” Sherri G. Morris writes that not finding out until college that you are without a uterus can be rather upsetting, to say the least.
As for the well-known term “hermaphrodite,” it is inaccurate at best and defamatory at worst. The word represents the idea of one person being anatomically both male and female, and this idea is a purely mythological one. Because it is physiologically impossible. As Dreger points out:
…the only way you could be born with “both sets of genitals” is if you had two bottoms. The clitoris and the penis are homologues—they are the same organ developmentally—so you get one or the other, or one in-between organ. Similarly, the labia majora and the scrotum are homologues—so you get either a set of labia majora, a scrotum, or something in between. But you can’t have all the female parts (clitoris, labia majora, etc.) and all the male parts (penis, scrotum, etc.) on one person…
What people mean when they say a person “was born with both sets of genitals” is that a child may be born with a phallus that looks a lot like a penis plus a vagina (the tubular organ that goes from the outside of the body towards the uterus, if there is a uterus). This can happen because of hormones, in conditions like congenital adrenal hyperplasia and partial androgen insensitivity syndrome. But to say that gives you “both sets of genitals” is to pretend that somehow all that matters to males is their penises and all that matters to females in their vaginas. In fact, many of us women also care about our clitorises. (For that matter, many men care about their scrotums.)
Unfortunately, sick fascination with the hermaphrodite is utterly pervasive today. Comedians of all stripes, from South Park to Flight of the Conchords, have yuk-yukked over the idea of a person with both sets of genitals being able to have intercourse on their own, while artists have done their fair share of poking at and playing with the myth. (See here for an intersex woman’s take on Middlesex.)
On this issue the ISNA is emphatic: “The terms [‘hermaphrodite’ and ‘hermaphroditism’] attract people with sexual fetishes and fantasies that, frankly, we as a patient advocacy organization are not interested in hearing from.” They therefore advocate expunging any terms related to “hermaphrodite” from all medical literature:
We think it is much better for everyone involved when specific condition names are used in medical research and practice… While some intersex people seek to reclaim the word “hermaphrodite” with pride to reference themselves (much like the words “dyke” and “queer” have been reclaimed by LBGT people), we’ve learned over the years it is best generally avoided, since the political subtlety is lost on a lot of people.
Meanwhile, in an Op-Ed piece appearing yesterday in Spiegel International, Agius argued, “…real progress for intersex people is not measured through the number of available labels but through an end to the human rights breaches currently being inflicted.”
Indeed, the new German law is just the tip of the iceberg. Considering that one in every 2,000 infants is born with an intersex condition, shame-induced secrecy continues to be an abysmal problem. The rights and concerns of those with intersex conditions receive far too little attention. (I was completely uninformed until I met Dreger ten years ago at the conference Surgically Shaping Children.) Whatever the legal specifics, Germany’s new law will hopefully promote awareness above all else, and in more ways than one.