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

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Progressive voters must ditch party differences to gain a voice in Brexit Britain

It's time for politicians and activists to put aside their tribal loyalties.

The status quo has broken. British politics lies shattered into pieces, and even Brexiteers look stunned. We are in a new landscape. Anyone who tells you they have the measure of it is lying; but anyone reaching for old certainties is most likely to be wrong.
 
Through this fog, we can already glimpse some signposts. There will be a leadership election in the Tory Party within three months. While it is still unclear who will win, the smart money is on a champion of Brexit. The Leave camp are in the ascendancy, and have captured the hearts of most Tory members and voters.
 
The next Conservative prime minister will lack a clear mandate from voters, but will need one to successfully negotiate our exit from the EU. They will also see a golden opportunity to capture the working-class Leave vote from Labour – and to forge an even more dominant Conservative electoral coalition. UKIP too would fancy their chances of dismembering Labour in the north; their financier Arron Banks now has almost a million new registered supporters signed up through Leave.EU.
 
In this context, it seems inevitable that there will be another general election within six to twelve months. Could Labour win this election? Split, demoralised and flailing, it has barely begun to renew, and now faces a massive undertow from its heartlands. In this time of crisis, a party divided will find it difficult to prevail – no matter who leads it. And amidst all today’s talk of coups against Corbyn, it is currently tough to envisage a leader who could unite Labour to beat the Brexiteers.  
 
From opposite ends of the political spectrum, I and my Crowdpac co-founder Steve Hilton have been testing the possibilities of new politics for years. In this referendum I supported Another Europe Is Possible’s call to vote In and change Europe. But it is crystal clear that the Leave campaigns learnt many of the lessons of new politics, and are well positioned to apply them in the months and years to come. I expect them to make significant use of our platform for crowdfunding and candidate selection.

Time to build a progressive alliance

On the other side, the best or only prospect for victory in the onrushing general election could be a broad progressive alliance or national unity platform of citizens and parties from the centre to the left. Such an idea has been floated before, and usually founders on the rocks of party tribalism. But the stakes have never been this high, and the Achilles heels of the status quo parties have never been so spotlit.
 
Such an alliance could only succeed if it embraces the lessons of new politics and establishes itself on open principles. A coalition of sore losers from Westminster is unlikely to appeal. But if an open primary was held in every constituency to select the best progressive candidate, that would provide unprecedented democratic legitimacy and channel a wave of bottom-up energy into this new alliance as well as its constituent parties.
 
In England, such an alliance could gather together many of those who have campaigned together for Remain in this referendum and opposed Tory policies, from Labour to Greens and Liberal Democrats. It might even appeal to Conservative voters or politicians who are disenchanted with the Leave movement. In Scotland and Wales too, some form of engagement with the SNP or Plaid Cymru might be possible.
 
An electoral alliance built on open and democratic foundations would provide a new entry point to politics for the millions of young people who voted to stay in the EU and today feel despairing and unheard. Vitally, it could also make a fresh offer to Labour heartland voters, enabling them to elect candidates who are free to speak to their concerns on immigration as well as economic insecurity. I believe it could win a thumping majority.

A one-off renegotiation force

A central goal of this alliance would be to re-negotiate our relationship with Europe on terms which protect our economy, workers’ rights, and the interests of citizens and communities across the country. Work would be needed to forge a common agenda on economic strategy, public services and democratic reform, but that looks more achievable than ever as of today. On more divisive issues like immigration, alliance MPs could be given flexibility to decide their own position, while sticking to some vital common principles.
 
This idea has bubbled to the surface again and again today in conversations with campaigners and politicians of different parties and of none. What’s more, only a new alliance of this kind has any prospect of securing support from the new network movements which I helped to build, and which now have many more members than the parties. So this is no idle thought experiment; and it surely holds out greater hope than another rearranging of the deckchairs in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
 
The alliance would probably not last in this form beyond one parliamentary term. But during that time it could navigate us safely through these turbulent referendum seas, and lay foundations for a better country and a better politics in the coming decades. Food for thought, perhaps.
 
Paul Hilder is co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011. 

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is the Executive Director of Here Now, a movement lab working with partners around the world. He co-founded 38 Degrees and openDemocracy, helped launch Avaaz.org and served as Vice-President of Global Campaigns at Change.org. He has worked on social change in the UK and around the world, including in the political arena and with Oxfam and the Young Foundation.