On Germany's new intersex law and the dangers of our gender-obsessed culture

Germany has become the first European country to pass a law that lets a birth certificate to be left blank in cases where the child is neither obviously male nor female, but it will take far more than a bureaucratic fix to remove the stigma of "abnormalit

A new law, which came into force today in Germany, provides that the box on a birth certificate specifying a child's gender should be left blank in cases where the child is neither obviously male nor female. This will, an Interior Ministry spokesman explained, "take the pressure off parents to commit themselves to gender immediately after birth" - thus allowing for greater delay before drastic, life-defining and perhaps mistaken surgery is carried out on an infant too young to decide for itself what it wants to be.

Such legal acknowledgement of the existence of intersex conditions, which have been known about for all recorded history, comes surprisingly late. Germany is the first country in Europe, and only the second in the world after Australia, to pass such a law.  (Australian law is in fact more advanced, allowing people a third option - designated X - on all official forms.)

Awareness of intersex issues has attracted some official notice elsewhere, but only fairly recently. This summer, the EU stipulated for the first time that intersex people should be included in anti-discrimination law, while earlier in the year the UN Special Rapporteur on torture called for a ban on "forced genital-normalising surgery". Yet intersex people remain excluded from our own Equality Act, and when the German proposals were first brought forward there was criticism from some that they would create a legally-defined "third sex". 

In the event, the new law has left some intersex campaigners unsatisfied. For them, the main issue remains the practice of surgical intervention to definitively assign gender and thus "correct" the apparent mistakes of nature. Intersex activists accuse doctors of interfering with nature, of making arbitrary judgements based on aesthetics or to fit cultural norms, of calling it wrong (in some cases, surgically-corrected "girls" grow up to identify as male, or vice versa) and of indulging in practices equivalent to the genital mutilation widely condemned when performed for religious or tribal reasons. Silvan Agius, for example, writes that "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 right to bodily integrity and self-determination should be ensured and past abuses acknowledged."

This is the core of the problem. On one level, humanity has become a great deal more enlightened since Roman times, when the birth of a "hermaphrodite" might be interpreted as an omen of war or natural disaster and the child was liable to be exposed, or since the Middle Ages when such an "unnatural" birth could be seen as evidence of the sin and perversion of the parents. Modern science recognises that biology in its infinite complexity doesn't care about the neatness of human thinking with its love of binary categories. Being of indeterminate gender is not in itself a disability. 

To a first approximation, of course, human beings come in two sexes, but contrary to popular wisdom (or bestselling pop psychology) men and women are not separate species and don't come from different planets. Biological sex doesn't even always come down to chromosomes, but rather results from the subtle interplay of genetics and embryology. There are physically normal-looking males who have two X chromosomes and physically normal-looking women with who are XY - though such extreme examples of sexual crossover are thought to extremely rare. (Typically, they only come to light when the people involved, who are sterile, show up at fertility clinics.) More common are children born with ambiguous genitalia - testes that might be ovaries, an unusually large clitoris that might, from another point of view, be an unusually small penis. 

How many children are intersex is a matter of dispute, and also of definition. One in 4,000 is a commonly accepted figure, but Anne Fausto-Sterling of Brown University has argued that it might be as many as one in 70. Taking a polemical stance on the issue, she has written that "male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological continuum" and that "if nature really offers us more than two sexes, then it follows that our current notions of masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits."

But the biology, and the experiences of intersex people assigned at birth to what they grow up to believe is the wrong gender, may tell a different story: that you can't arbitrarily assign decide that a child is a boy or a girl and expect it to conform to the cultural expectation. The problem with surgical intervention isn't just the theoretical one that it violates the integrity of the body but the practical one that the doctors might well make a mistake. The answer, say campaigners, is to hold off both legal gender assignment and surgery until the child is old enough to make up its own mind as to whether it's a boy or a girl - or something in-between. Yet such a child, in our gender-obsessed culture, is likely to feel confusion and face prejudice. The stigma of "abnormality" can cause deep psychological scars: every child has a right to feel normal, and social expectations of gender can make it difficult to feel normal in a body that is not unambiguously male or female. Tackling that will be a much larger problem than a simple bureaucratic fix.
 

From now on in Germany the gender on the birth certificate of a child who is not obviously male or female can be left blank. Photo: Getty
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.