A new law in Germany allows babies to be identified as a third gender if they are born with a body that is neither wholly male nor female; this is referred to as intersex. The Intersex Society of North America estimates that as many as 1 in 1,500 to 2,000 babies internationally are born as intersex.
Typically, if babies are born as intersex, they will undergo surgical and hormonal sex reassignment, misleadingly called “normalization.” With the new law in place, which allows an X instead of M or F on legal documents, parents have time to decide the sex of their child. Germany is the first European country to allow such a designation.
While Germany has been praised for this law, it is far less progressive than it appears. Children can only be entered as male or female once they have undergone “normalizing” genital surgeries. This law seems to allow parents and their children the choice to decide on M, F or X, but X is meant to be a temporary designation.
Even though plenty of people are content identifying as intersex and other countries have taken steps to make X a legitimate gender, those who do not opt for dangerous and often unnecessary surgeries will face hurdles and discrimination later in life.
According to the Intersex Society of North America, there is no evidence of psychological damage for intersex children who do not receive “normalizing” surgeries. The biggest harm of being intersex is the shame unnecessarily imposed by the medical community. Or, rather, by those who are uncomfortable with questioning their presumptions of what “normal” means and, further, why they care so much about the appearance of someone else’s genitalia.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has condemned such “normalizing” surgeries. An international group of endocrine societies have also elaborated on the dangers of these procedures.
While ambiguous genitalia rarely pose health risks, the irreversible – and primarily cosmetic – surgery and involuntary sterilization certainly can pose risks. Such surgeries are often done even without the parents’ consent.
According to the SRT, risks could render a potentially healthy adult with irreversible infertility, a permanent loss of sensation, scarring, incontinence and psychological harm. This damaging obligation is all in the name of reinforcing the restrictive binaries of M and F.
Aside from the disturbing effects of mandatory sex reassignment surgery, the third gender option is an illusion that there is a choice in the matter. Being that X is present on official documents such as licenses and passports, intersex children could face even more discrimination and vulnerability. This puts further pressure on parents to opt for surgery as soon as possible.
Even if someone chose to keep X designation into adulthood, marriage rights and basic health insurance are currently denied to intersex people in Germany, which again would make surgical reassignment mandatory even it was not medically necessary.
Rather than a law creating an illusion of choice, Germany ought to have such a third gender designation for those who choose so in adulthood, similar to laws in Australia, which encompass anyone who falls outside binary labels.
If an intersex child wishes to lead a life like those with an M or F designation, parents are practically forced to choose dangerous surgery before the child can even consent to such a decision.
Ultimately, the choice – the legitimate and informed choice – of whether or not to receive sex reassignment surgery should be up to the intersex individual, not a society which values binaries over human well-being.