At the beginning of this month, a German law came into effect which allows doctors to leave the gender box on a birth certificate blank, if they’re not able to ascertain the baby’s gender. This was described by some as a great step forward, as it allows intersex to exist in law.

But campaigners don’t see it that way. Ins Kromminga at Organisation Intersex International (OII) Europe says the fact that something must be entered, means that it is unlikely to be used, and doctors would continue to intervene to give the baby a male or female label. ‘It is extremely unlikely that doctors would opt for such a certificate, unless the parents strongly pushing for it. The risk of stigmatisation remains large, and the new provisions would do nothing to discourage doctors from avoiding an “ambiguous” child at any cost.

‘If the motive of the new regulation is to reduce surgical-hormonal “disambiguations” of children, this goal will not be achieved.’

Labelling people

Intersex people are not rare, but are invisible, due to society insisting people are labelled either male or female, says Silvan Agius in an article published in the German news magazine Der Spiegel. Agius is policy director at ILGA Europe, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, who wrote the article with Morgan Carpenter and Dan Christian Ghattas of OII.

‘When we were born,’ says Agius, ‘the first question asked about each of us was, in all likelihood, were we a boy or a girl? Questions about our health and well-being trailed behind, if asked at all. As we grew older, we were all instilled with gender roles based on the sex assigned to us at birth. We were taught how to perform our gender in ways that meet social expectations. Any divergence was punished, while affirmations of our socially accepted gender were rewarded.

‘Such a setting leaves no space for the expression of variance or ambiguity, no matter how small.’

Surgical interventions

Agius points out that the bodies of infants detected as intersex are routinely modified to fit people’s expectations of ‘normal’, with the first surgeries and treatments performed on newborns or toddlers. Parents are not given enough information by surgeons, and consent without really understanding what they’re consenting to. These medical procedures are often cosmetic, and rarely necessary for the well-being of the child.

Meanwhile, Agius says that the new German law is unlikely to make any improvement for the intersex person’s quality of life: ‘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. Surgical or hormonal treatment for cosmetic, non-medically necessary reasons must be deferred to an age when intersex people are able to provide their own free, prior and fully informed consent.

‘The new law has raised awareness. Now we need the solutions.’