Germany announces third ‘gender’

x1-252x300Think for a minute about the forms you fill in. You are asked to give your name and then, the second most common question is about your gender – are you male or female? This seemingly innocuous question overlooks the fact that some people do not have a clear sense of being male or female. It is not the all-or-nothing thing we assume it is. In particular, a small but significant number of people can not be identified as male or female. For example, there was the well known case of the Batista family from a small Caribbean village – a number of the children in this families were born with the external genitalia of a girl but, in puberty, developed a penis and testicles. (The reason was a lack of a testosterone during prenatal development, which meant that the male sex organs simply did not descend).

Australia and India have previously acknowledged a third gender officially but Germany is the first European country to do so and Germany is also allowing this to be recorded at birth. In the past there was immediate pressure, at birth, for individuals to be classed as male or female (what’s the first question every one asks when a baby is born?). Intersex groups have long campaigned to prevent this because it is very difficult to turn the clock back once someone has been labelled male or female, and surgery often followed. In some American Indian tribes it was common practice to acknowledge that some people have two spirits in one body – masculine and feminine. Such individuals did not have to be one or the other.

The decision to stop dividing the world into male and female is going to cause problems in the world of sport where men and women compete separately. For many years it has already been causing problems because, in reality, it is difficult to determine when someone is or isn’t a female. The case of Caster Semenya is just one example of a female accused of actually being a male. Genetic and/or hormone testing are insufficient as tests for gender because there are individuals with XY chromosomes (normal male) who have female genitalia and who have believed all their lives that they are females (see androgen insensitivity disorder). Nowadays gender verification in sport involves a complex consultation between specialists.

There you are – you thought the question of male or female was a simple one but it isn’t.

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One Comment

  1. Cara Flanagan November 1, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    PS There is an interesting programme in the ‘Life Scientific’ series on genes and gender with Jenny Graves, which also has some useful comments on the scientific process.


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