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

India Bourke
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Pegida UK: the new face of Britain’s far-right movement, and how to challenge it

“Let them drink tea,” Birmingham tells Islamophobes.

“Spooky,” is how Pegida UK – the latest branch of a global, anti-Islam, protest group  chooses to describe its silent march on the outskirts of Birmingham. 

“Islam is Nazism incarnate,” announces its new leader, Paul Weston, to a few hundred soggy, sober, brolly-clad protesters waving “Trump is Right” placards. 


Pegida UK protestors march through the rain. Photos: India Bourke

Such numbers are a far cry from the tens of thousands who attended the movement’s inaugural rallies in Germany in 2014, in response to the perceived “Islamisation” of Europe. And they would be derisory if the cheers Weston receives from his supporters weren’t quite so chilling, nor echoed so far.

For Pegida UK is not alone. From Calais to Canberra, thousands marched in the name of the movement’s toxic platform of anti-immigration and anti-Islam last weekend. I went to see the Birmingham rally to find out why such a protest is taking place in Britain.

***

"Today is the first of many European wide demonstrations that will bring people together like never before,” Tommy Robinson, UK founder and ex-EDL leader, tells the assembled crowd. “It's planting the seed of something huge.”

Robinson hopes to exploit a gap within Britain’s far-right. Traditional groups are fractured: the British National Party was decimated at the last election, standing just eight of a previous 338 candidates. In its place, a swell of smaller, extremist bodies – from the Sigurd Legion to National Action – are pressing an ever more militant agenda. Pegida hopes to scale back the hooliganism in order to garner a wider appeal, but it shares these groups’ confrontation with Islam, and each may spur the other on.

“With Pegida we’re seeing the rise of a seminal new threat,” says Birmingham MP Liam Byrne. “In the rise of Isis and politicians like Donald Trump, you have forces determined to promote a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. Pegida is trying to surf that wave and make sure it crashes on our shores.

Opponents hope the movement will suffer the same implosion that felled the BNP and EDL, with both leaning  too much on their leaders’ personal brands. Robinson certainly seems as adolescent as ever: laughing as he swipes away a photo of a scantily-clad blonde on his iPhone screen to show me the international Pegida leadership’s “hidden” Facebook group.

Their new apparently "suited and booted" middle-class following is also less than wholehearted. One pin-striped IT executive I speak to seems embarrassed by the whole affair: “I’m just a cowardly family man who can’t see a solution being offered by mainstream politicians. I’d be sacked if they knew I was here,” he says, declining to give his name. 


A Pegida protestor poses in front of the main stage.

As long as such hesitation prevails, Pegida UK will struggle. Still, there’s a sense more needs to be done to ensure its demise.

Matching protest with counter-protest is the traditional leftwing response, and this weekend saw thousands of Pegida opponents take to the streets across Europe. Yet, in some cases, direct confrontation can risk drowning out – even alienating – the very voices it seeks to win over.

“Smash the facists into the sea,” instructed the Twitter account of the North London Antifa group ahead of last weekend’s far-right, anti-immigration protest in Dover, where injuries were sustained by demonstrators on both sides.

***

Instead, many now believe a better answer begins with that most British of pastimes: tea and a chat.

On the day before the Birmingam march, hundreds of the city’s cross-party leaders, religious figures and citizens gathered together at Birmingham Central Mosque to share their concerns over shortcake and jalebi.

“Groups like Pegida are parasites on the real concerns people have,” says John Page from the anti-extremism group Hope not Hate. “So we have to listen to these issues to close the cracks.

Initiatives around the city will attempt to take this approach, which sets a welcome lead not just for the UK, but Europe too.

The blanket smearing by groups like Pegida of Islam as a religion of sexist, homophobic Jihadi Johns places the burden of action disproportionately on the city’s Muslims. “It is our turn now to suffer these attacks,” says Mr Ali, Birmingham Central Mosque’s 42-year-old administrator. “It was the Irish, then the Jews, and now it is the time for us. But we are proud to be British Muslims and we will do what we can to defend this country.” 

A permanent visitors gallery, Visit-my-Mosque events, and publications that condemn Isis, are just some of the ways the community is challenging demonisation. It is even hosting a documentary crew from Channel 4 – a bold move in a city still reeling from Benefits Street.


Birmingham resident, Luke Holland, at a peaceful counter-protest in the city centre.

Mr Ali says: “The extreme right know nothing about Islam, but neither do many Muslim extremists.” The mosque is therefore in the process of formulating a “code of conduct”, making clear that hate speech of any kind is unacceptable.

"We have to help young people become the next Chamberlains and Cadburys and Lucases of this city," regardless of background, says Labour councillor Habib Rehman. Instead of letting them slip into despair and extremism of any kind, "we have to tell them: 'Yes You Khan!’”

Tea and talk is not the most dramatic response to Pegida’s claim it will have “100,000 decent people on the street” by the end of the year. But, in Birmingham at least – the city of Typhoo, where bhangra is as familiar as Bournville, and “No dogs, no Irish!” still sits heavy on the collective mind – tea, for now, means hope.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.