A woman spray-paints male and female figures on the ground. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on gender: Society needs to get over its harmful obsession with labelling us all girls or boys

Germany has announced legislation to allow parents not to record the gender of their newborn - this is just a small step in the long march to equal rights and recognition for intersex, transsexual and transgender people in Europe.

When April Ashley, who in 1960 became one of the first Britons to have sex reassignment surgery, was asked by reporters if she was born a man or a woman, her answer was always the same: “I was born a baby.” For the full effect, imagine Ashley saying this with a little smile on her perfectly pencilled lips, dignified and demure in the face of the fusillade of stupid questions she has been fielding for more than 50 years. Sadly, Ashley’s point – that not all babies fit into the pink or blue box they were assigned at birth – is taking a long time to sink in.
 
Now, Germany has announced legislation to allow parents not to record the gender of their newborn if, as is surprisingly often the case, doctors cannot instantly determine what biological sex the wriggling, squalling bundle of growth hormones is.
 
There are many conditions that can cause a person to be biologically intersex. Stories about the “third gender”, about gods and humans who weren’t quite men or women, have been with us for millennia, but there has long been pressure on doctors and parents to “fix” any baby who isn’t obviously either a boy or a girl. This often entails intimate surgery that is performed when the child is too young to consent. Traumatic reports about the effect this sort of procedure can have on kids when they grow up appear routinely in the tabloids – but the question of why, precisely, it is considered so urgent that every child be forced to behave like a “normal” boy or girl is rarely discussed.
 
Germany’s law, which comes into force in November, is just a small step in the long march to equal rights and recognition for intersex, transsexual and transgender people in Europe, a trudge that is beset by bigots on one side and bureaucrats on the other.
 
The main detractors of the German law oppose the move not on moral grounds but because of the paperwork involved – and look at me not resorting to any national stereotypes about managerial dourness to finish this sentence . . . but what if the paperwork is the problem? What if you’re someone who is literally written out of every form and official document, every passport and bank account application, because society refuses to recognise there are more than two genders?
 
One in 2,000 babies, or 0.05 per cent of the world population, is estimated to be intersex. That’s about 31,400 people in the UK; 3.5 million people across the globe. That, in case you were wondering, is ten times the population of Iceland. And those 3.5 million are just those who are visibly intersex at birth: some estimates suggest that the correct proportion of human beings whose bodies differ in some way from “normal” male or female, either hormonally or genetically, could be as high as 1 per cent. Some of those people prefer to identify simply as men or as women, but many do not.
 
The German law will give the right to “leave the box blank” only to those born intersex – but gender identity is about more than biology. According to a 2012 Scottish trans mental health study, about a quarter of transsexual and transgender people do not identify as male or female, and prefer to present as nonbinary, gender-fluid or agendered.
 
So why aren’t we talking about this more? Why isn’t there a bigger public conversation about intersexuality and life outside the pinkand- blue binary? I don’t mean drooling “true stories” – I mean level-headed discussion that understands that intersex, transgender and androgynous people are “normal” humans, too, who spend as much time stuck on trains or waiting for trashy crime shows to download as they do considering the contents of their underpants. Why are these matters so rarely taught in schools? Why do so many children – including intersex and transgender kids – grow up believing you have to be a girl or a boy and that there are no other options?
 
Unfortunately, I know the answer. We don’t talk about it because questioning something as culturally fundamental as the gender binary is risky. It makes people confused and it makes them angry.
 
For some, the notion of large numbers of people not living as men or women doesn’t morally compute, objective fact and conservative morality never having been the most snuggly of bedfellows. These are often the same people who can be found quoting dubious evolutionary “studies” suggesting there are prehistoric reasons why “some girls just like pink”, possibly involving cavewomen and colourful fruit, even though the practice of dressing girls in pink is barely a century old.
 
The idea that there are only two possible genders and that those genders are rigid and fixed is an organising principle of life in most modern societies. It affects everything, from how we dress to whom we can marry and what work we get to do to whether or not we will be paid for that work. Discussion of conditions such as intersexuality threatens all that. It gives the lie to the gender binary, exposing it as not just flawed, but scientifically inaccurate. And so we carry on shoving intersex and transgender folk to one side and forcing everyone who isn’t “normal” to damn well act that way or face harassment, discrimination and violence, from the playground to the pulpit. Concerned parents of confused children are coerced into picking a sex and sticking to it – but is that for their own good, or for the good of a society wedded to a simple understanding of gender?
 
To anyone reading this who is intersex – and I know that there will be at least a few – I apologise for how basic this must sound. My sincere hope is that in ten years’ time articles such as this one will look outdated to the point of offence, rather like a column from the 1960s making the stunning observation that, gosh, some men fancy other men and might even like to marry them.
 
The journey from here to there will probably involve a lot of paperwork – but for millions of people across the world, it’ll be worth it.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.