Since November 1, German parents have been given the option to register their babies as neither male nor female on their birth certificates if they are intersex. Germany is also allowing a new intersex option on its passports. This makes Germany the first European country to allow such options, and only the sixth country in the world to pass such legislation.
The push for reform in Germany began following a 2012 report by the German Ethics Council. The Council is a group that advises the government and Parliament about complex ethical issues that are relevant to German citizens. In the 2012 briefing, the council reported that “many people who are subjected to ‘normalizing’ operation in their childhood have later felt it to have been a mutilation and would never have agreed to it as adults.” These findings were prompted by a movement to make such reassignment surgery on infants illegal. The new legislation does not address this issue, but does give parents the option to forgo labeling their child as either male or female before they are old enough to make the choice for themselves.
The change to the Civil Status Act, which passed on May 7, is seen as a compromise, as often parents make the choice when pressured by time constraints to register their child with the government.
Along with the change in birth certificates, Germany is also updating its passports to allow for an ‘X’ option, indicating that the holder is neither male nor female. This option will be open to all citizens, not just those who are intersex.
In addition to the issues already being faced by intersex people, the new legislation creates more problems. Germany currently recognizes both marriage and civil partnership, but the legal terminology defining these institutions will prove problematic, as they are respectively defined as unions between a man and a woman and unions between same-sex couples. There is no room yet for unions where one or both of the partners identify as intersex.
The first country to allow its citizens to legally identify as a third gender was Nepal. The country passed legislation in 2007, which allowed people to identify as ‘other’ on its census. This reform was followed by changes in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, and New Zealand. There is also a population in Thailand, the Kathoeys, who are recognized within institutions but have not yet gained legal status.
Even though Germany is not the first country to pass such legislation, it is significant that it is the first European country to do so. Germany is routinely criticized for its lack of social reform (by European standards). The loudest of this criticism stems from the government’s lag time in responding to changes in public opinion on social issues. The fact that Germany is the first European country to pass legislation preventing the premature labeling of intersex children is revolutionary, on both the international and the national level. The legislation is not perfect, and without further changes it will prove problematic, but it is revolutionary. It may not prevent sex reassignment surgery on infants as German activists had hoped it would, but it is certainly much more than other countries have done to ensure the well-being of its intersex citizens.