It's official: On Wednesday, Germany's Cabinet approved a measure that will allow people to choose a third gender for themselves on official documents and identification papers. That means that people who don't identify as male or female — or those with ambiguous sexual and reproductive anatomy — can opt to mark themselves as "inter/diverse" or "diverse" instead. The Cabinet decision still requires approval from the German Parliament.
Intersex is not a sexual orientation — it refers specifically to a person's biological characteristics. Intersex people can be gay or straight, and can identify as male, female, or neither. Many cultures and religions have recognized intersex people: A number of First Nations communities in Canada, for example, have long recognized "two-spirit" people, an umbrella term that recognizes those who do not fit within Western notions of gender and sexual identity and who embody both male and female characteristics.
Recognizing a right
For intersex people, and trans people who do not conform to male or female representation, the option to be able to self-identity in their personal legal records in a way that reflects their reality is of crucial importance. However, it is not a fix-all measure for those who've faced discrimination based on their nonbinary status.
Intersex people, both children and adults, face discrimination, stigmatization and are often subjected to surgeries that alter their anatomy to conform to either male or female binaries — sometimes these procedures are coercive, or, in the case of infants and children, done without their consent.
The "third gender" option places Germany in line with other countries that have introduced measures to recognize intersex people or a third gender, such as Austria, Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, Portugal, and some US states. The UN estimates that between 0.05 percent and 1.7 percent of the population worldwide is born with intersex traits — for comparison, the higher end of that estimate is about the same as the number of people with red hair worldwide.
Germany's move has been lauded as historic by many activists, experts and lawmakers while raising bigger questions about the rights and freedoms of intersex people worldwide. Intersex people and those who do not identify as either male or female have the right to self-identify as they choose and to have their identity be affirmed and acknowledged by governments, medical agencies and public institutions. But that recognition and right to self-identification is not enough.
More progress needed
Being able to mark oneself as "diverse" on an official document, for example, does not make using public bathrooms easier or less risky for intersex and gender nonconforming people who do not "look" clearly male or female — they often face unwanted stares, attention and even violence. Intersex people who do not conform to traditional male or female appearances are often subjected to uncomfortable physical searches while going through security at airports and other checkpoints as well — and official documentation won't necessarily alleviate that discomfort.
Intersex people also question whether clearly marking themselves as "diverse" or "intersex" on official travel documents may be endangering themselves when entering countries or territories that do not recognize the designation.
Even those who welcome the move say it's only a first step, with much more work to be done on protecting the rights of gender nonconforming people. Others worry that the move is not one towards liberation, but one that is only about more medical categorization and labeling.
But, for many people, the move represents a step forward amidst a challenging road to liberation and acceptance. It's an understanding that sexual identity is not an either or, and that it can often fall on a spectrum with many layers and complexities. In the words of Sara Kelly Keenan, the first American person to get "intersex" on their birth certificate in 2016: "There's power in knowing who you are."