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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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Power-sharing and devolved rule are under threat. What's going on? Ciara Dunne explains. 

The UUP will formalise their decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland executive on Saturday. The DUP then announced that it may consider voting to remove Sinn Fein from the executive effectively ending or at least suspending devolution. This is due to a statement by PSNI chief constable George Hamilton stating that former IRA member Kevin McGuigan may have been murdered by people connected to the Provisional IRA (PIRA). However Hamilton also stressed that there was no evidence to prove that the murder occurred due to PIRA orders and there are claims that it was a personal vendett.

The UUP declaring that they will withdraw from the Executive is not particularly destructive. They only have one minister and their vote share has been steadily declining since they signed the Good Friday Agreement to the benefit of the DUP. By acting so dramatically, they run the risk of this seeming like the death rattle of a party trying to remain relevant in a world so different from its heyday rather than a principled stand to protect the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement.

Nesbitt voiced disgust that the IRA was still in existence. However the IRA is not one group and many of its splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and Real IRA (RIRA) didn’t sign up to the Good Friday Agreement and have been active since it. They were not the only paramilitary groups that did not sign up, fragments of extremism have existed since the PIRA decommissioned and it seems likely that they incorporated those who had been PIRA members who were disillusioned by the agreement. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach and Good Friday Agreement negotiator, explained while the PIRA had to decommission as part of the agreement, for various reasons it was allowed to exist in a non-armed state. News of its existence shouldn’t come as a shock to the only major unionist party that engaged in Good Friday Agreement negotiations. If the PIRA were proved to be armed and active then this response would be understandable but that is not the case.

What this stand does however give the UUP is a unique selling point compared to theirwe rivals the DUP and it can somewhat tackle the perception some have that the UUP betrayed the unionist community when it agreed to work with Sinn Féin in government.

The DUP has been less drastic. Although they have stated that they would consider pulling out of government, they have described it as temporary suspension of government rather than a total breakdown of trust. Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP, said that if they are to continue to power share with Sinn Féin, they must ensure the PIRA issue dealt with ‘in terms that gives everyone the reassurance that this isn’t going to happen again’. This is a reasonable request and something Sinn Féin must do. They should be unwavering in their condemnation of any paramilitary organisations. However so far they haven’t done otherwise, several senior figures have denied that the PIRA have rearmed. Pearse Doherty, a prominent Sinn Féin TD, insisted that when it came to the IRA “the war is over, they’re not coming back”.

The best way to tackle paramilitaries is to tackle the reasons people joined them. This can be done not by threatening to withdraw from the government but standing together against sectarianism. Parties must ensure that there is a functioning government that works for the good of everyone and gives people a genuine stake in society. It is important that representatives of both communities condemn paramilitaries, in actions as well as words. All parties will soon have the opportunity to move away from old associations, as the old guard age and move aside and the younger members who are untainted by such associations, take charge of the party.

However, it is vital that parties take a considered stance in anything controversial for this to work. In this case, it is not yet certain whether the connections are historical or current. Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has stated she has no reason to believe that the PIRA are active in the military sense. Bertie Ahern pointed out that it is possible that ‘these atrocities are being done [by those] who might have been on the inside but are now long since on the outside?’ Political posturing could have terrible consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, especially if results in a party with a large electoral mandate being removed from government when there is no proof it has broken the agreement.

If the UUP and the DUP are truly concerned, a more constructive reaction is to push for the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The IMC monitored paramilitary activity from 2004 to 2011 and its final report stated that ‘transition from conflict is a long slow process’. This latest incident shows this is true and it is likely that the IMC was disbanded too soon. Reconvening the IMC would offer a way to monitor paramilitary activity and to find patterns and evidence rather than allowing a single incident to destroy progress. If reconvened however it should address the issues that resulted in Sinn Féin’s criticism of the body. A more balanced panel, one agreed by all parties, would address this, the previous one was described as three spooks and a lord, but would still add value to the peace process.

If political parties pull out of the power sharing agreement over an incident that the police have not yet connecting to a sophisticated paramilitary organisation with political connections, they are handing extremism a victory while taking democratic choice away from the people of Northern Ireland. The majority of people in Northern Ireland have been clear, both in referendum and in their actions, they want peace and stability. If the parties of Northern Ireland don’t fight to protect this then they are betraying everyone who believed in the Good Friday Agreement and reconciliation.