By Kenneth Chan
Germany has now become the first European country to allow parents to leave the gender of newborns blank on birth certificates when gender is ambiguous. It is the hope of many that this new legislation will effectively create a new category recognising the separate but equal status of ‘intersex’ people – the term for those born with characteristics of both genders, due to about 60 identified sexual development conditions.
However, this third category really is an unprotected non-status. The law says, “If the child can be assigned to neither the female nor the male sex, then the child has to be entered into the register of births without such a specification.” For these babies, rights like marriage and basic services like insurance do not apply.
The current problem for babies born with indeterminate gender is the immense pressure on parents to decide on the gender of the baby in order for them to be registered as male or female. This results in the baby undergoing all kinds of cosmetic gender-reassigning genital surgeries.
Yet, since according to current legal practice, the gender status of babies can only be defined medically, the only way for parents to attain basic rights for their children and avoid discrimination is by having them undergo these ‘normalising’ genital surgeries. Therefore, the reality of this new legislation is that there will be increased pressure on parents to avoid registering their child as genderless.
Biological sex exists along a spectrum of numerous possibilities, as evidenced by the many intersex people whose looks can be predominantly male, female or often a mixture. Some intersex people eventually identify as female or male, and some don’t identify with either. When decisions are made by doctors or parents to conduct surgery on a newborn, the baby’s own gender identity is taken out of their hands for the purpose of checking a box.
Ironically, by forcing babies to conform to rigid categories of ‘normal’ genders, we deprive them of the opportunity to live normal lives. For many, these surgeries are a mutilation. In fact, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture recently called for a universal ban on these surgeries.
While the new law shows recognition of intersex people and the fact that intersex people face discrimination from the moment of birth, it does nothing to improve the lives of these people or help them integrate.
There definitely needs to be action taken to ensure genital surgeries are only done based on the decision of the intersex individual themselves as legally consenting adults, or at least as individuals with formed gender identities, but even this alone will be unhelpful to individuals shunned by society.
At the root of the issue are the fixed societal perceptions of gender: boys like blue, wear trousers, have short hair, play physical sports and don’t cry; girls like pink, wear ponytails and skirts, and bake cakes.
Although we can easily recognise the artificialness of these stereotypes in defining the differences between men and women, this recognition does not go far enough in breaking the social boundaries between physical gender differences.
It is still common to perceive those who have undergone sexual reassignment as different, and this is symptomatic of setting gender as a defining element of social division. There needs to be complete legal protection of the rights of people all along the gender spectrum, but until the common perception of those who have undergone sexual reassignment procedures is changed, there is no truly embracing solution to the plight of intersex babies.
Some would go as far as to say that just like other things we are born with, such as sexual orientation, birth gender should not be mandatorily indicated on official documentation. Idealistic visualisations of a society free from gender aside, the word we are looking for here is, as usual in the course of modern human history: “acceptance.”