Germany’s Third Gender: It’s a Start

One out of 2000 people are born with characteristics of both sexes. This means that somewhere between three and four hundred thousand Europeans are neither wholly female nor wholly male. That is more than the total population of Iceland. 

Recently, Germany has followed certain Asian and Oceanian countries in allowing people to be recognised as “gender-free.” The introduction of the category of “intermediate,” in addition to “man” and “woman,” is a step forward for social inclusion in Europe. But it is only a small step on a very long road.

Stigma and torture

For people with alternative gender identities are brutally stigmatised today. The World Health Organisation (WHO) still lists people not fitting into either category of male or female as suffering from a mental illness. They removed homosexuality from this list as late as in 1990. Children born with both female and male genitalia therefore often undergo surgery to become "normalised". This practice is so harmful that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture recently called on all member states to ban it.

British author Lady Colin Campbell is an outspoken example of this. She was surgically changed to a boy after being born with genital deformities, and raised accordingly. During her teenage years, she suffered horrible bullying at an all-boys school, and was also subject to hormone treatments to make her more male. So not only can genital surgery in itself be severely destructive. The consequences of choosing the sex of a baby, without clear indications of what should be chosen, can haunt a person for a lifetime. 

Further yet, four out of five trans-persons in Europe report to have been harassed in public, according to a report the European Commission released last year. Regrettably, similar data for intersex people does not exist. The Commission’s report moreover tells of discrimination in the job market, with some figures of unemployment being doubled for people that are neither male nor female. Discrimination in access to health care and education is described as “rampant.”

Can Germany’s new law really help combat all of this?

Civil society:  – Far from enough

Silvan Agius, of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), says no.

The same does Hida Viloria, chairperson of Organization Intersex International (OII).

Agius and Viloria claim that the German measure is an outright failure. They maintain that the medicalization of intersex people and the surgical treatments without medical reasons are the most fundamental issues. These are not addressed by the new law.

The campaigners also argue that the law creates new problems. Health insurance in Germany, for instance, is not available to anyone not belonging to the categories of male or female. The same goes for marriage.

That the medicalization of intersex people continues with this law is undoubtedly a massive letdown. But that basic services are not provided to gender-free individuals is easier to mend – if the political will is there. The latter is also something that, at any rate, needs to follow after, not precede, a law like this.

And what the law first and foremost does is to officially acknowledge that people do not have to belong to either the male or female gender. Even if that is all, this recognition is a stride that should not be taken lightly. No other European country has done the same.

Obviously, the law by itself will not change prevalent norms about gender roles in every way. But it will definitely raise awareness about an issue that many, unfortunately, are oblivious to.

Eyes slowly opening

In Europe, as in many other parts of the world, the recognition of multiple gender identities has been limited throughout history. The subject of male homosexuality, or rather of sodomy, has most often overshadowed other issues of sexuality and alternative genders.

However, gender identity and sexual orientation are two different matters. People born with a mixture of male and female chromosomes do not necessarily have anything to do with the love of people of the same sex, or with certain sexual practices enjoyed by heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.

In India, the Hijra are a famous example of historical openness to multiplicity in gender. With British colonisation and Victorian morals, they were repressed; but since 2005, they have again been legally recognised as distinct from male and female. In 2007 and 2009 respectively, Nepal and Pakistan did the same. In 2011 and 2012, it was Australia, Bangladesh and New Zealand’s turn.

And this year, then, Germany follows suit.

Hopefully, more of Europe will soon understand that this is not a marginal concern, or something to be treated as a perversity – but rather an important issue affecting hundreds of thousands of people. 


Edited by: Celeste Concari 
Photo Credits: Marcus Werthmann