Thoughtful comment on gender and politics

Male/female: what happens if you don’t tick the box?

I’ve often wondered which social practices, that today are considered completely normal, will be exposed as being discriminatory and abusive in the next fifty years. What is it that we’re doing now that in 2063 will be viewed on a footing with unequal pay and marital rape?

I pick these examples because it was only in 1970 that it became illegal to pay a woman less than a man, and it was just 22 years ago (in 1991) that it became illegal to rape your wife. During the last century both of these things were viewed as widely acceptable, but in recent decades the tide of public opinion turned and now we have legislation to protect women facing these issues. So what are we doing today, that could be blindly causing harm and pain to others, which in the future will be deemed unacceptable?

At the LSE (where I did a Masters in gender theory) I remember spending hours in the library struggling to make sense of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble… and that was just the first chapter. I remember trying to wrap my head around new concepts of gender that had never occurred to me, because I’d never bothered to question the status quo. I remember struggling to articulate those concepts to those around me and trying to imagine what a better world might look like.

One of the things that really struck me was how to imagine gender. I’d always thought of male and female as secure categories, which were easy to define and articulate. It had never occurred to me to think of gender in any other way. But the more I read, the more I learnt. One of the things I realised was that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are born without without clear male or female genitalia, and so our obsession when a child is born about whether it’s a boy or a girl, whether to buy baby blue or baby pink, is actually incredibly unhelpful to a large number of parents.

As many as 1 in 2,000 babies are born intersex. That means that in the UK every single day there is at least one new mum having a conversation with a doctor about gender assignment surgery.

Parents are often pressured into decisions about surgery and gender assignment just days after their child comes into this world. One of things contributing to that pressure is that when you register a birth you have to register the child’s sex, and you have to do this within the first 42 days of life. Operating on a healthy newborn baby, to fit society’s idea of male and female seems fairly extreme, particularly in a culture which also places a high value on individualism and self-determination.

Having given all this stuff a lot of thought, I was fascinated to discover on Friday that Germany is to allow parents to leave the box for sex blank when registering children. The reason is to remove pressure from parents for assigning a sex to their child where they display both male and female genitalia. It’s a means for parents to register the birth of their baby, without forcing them into a box they just don’t tick.

There are some who say the new law doesn’t go far enough, that rather than leaving the box blank, parents should have a third box marked intersex that they can tick. I happen to agree, but I also think we should applaud Germany for being the first to make this landmark change. It’s easy to criticise reformers for not going far enough, but in a world where I find myself having to tick a box marked female at least every few weeks, I think Germany’s doing a pretty radical thing.

In 2063 I hope that being intersex is no longer a taboo, that gendered identities aside from male and female are not just acknowledged, but embraced. I hope that people realise that not everyone fits into the boxes marked male and female, and that that’s ok. At the moment we’re causing hurt without even realising it, and I hope that in fifty years’ time that’s changed.

2 Responses to “Male/female: what happens if you don’t tick the box?”

  1. Romaine Dennistoun

    Well done: both interesting & thought provoking. I enjoyed reading …. And learning. Mxxxx

    Sent from my iPhone


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