Why it’s not “gaga” to expand our concept of gender

Text: Bettina Schreck Holger Edmaier – Projekt 100% MENSCH

In our society and around the globe, we are observing two trends: New and diverse gender identities are becoming increasingly visible, and decades-long efforts to achieve legal and social equality for the LSBTTIQ* community (lesbians, gays, transsexuals and transgender, intersex and queer people) are beginning to show results. Recognition of same-sex marriage and the “third option” – which allows individuals to designate a sexual identity other than male or female – are proof that a “revolution from the ground up” can be successful.

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At the same time, we are seeing a conservative, even reactionary, backlash from those who would prefer to return to the gender roles of the 1950s. At the European level, ultraconservative forces are pursuing an agenda that explicitly opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and human rights for women, gays, lesbians and transgender people, an agenda they refer to as “restoring the natural order.” The “successes” of this agenda can currently be seen in Hungary (banning gender studies) as well as in Poland, where there are plans to tighten restrictions on abortion.

In Germany, loaded terms like “early sexualization,” “genderization,” “gender gaga” (which expresses disdain for a more inclusive view of gender) and even “gender insanity” are appearing in the media and campaign platforms. They are being used by right-wing organizations like the so-called “Demo für alle” (“Demonstrating for Everyone”) group, an offshoot of the Alternative for Germany party. Under the guise of “protecting our children,” these organizations label as “gender ideologues” everyone who is doing the important work of educating students and the broader society about topics such as sexuality, gender roles and sexual orientation.

Both trends are evident in the reactions to Tessa Ganserer, a member of the Bavarian state parliament and the first transgender person to be elected to a state-level legislature in Germany. President Ilse Aigner of the Bavarian parliament demonstrated solidarity, making it clear that Tessa Ganserer was to be addressed as a woman and that defamatory comments would not be tolerated. That led to a flood of unfiltered hatred, smear campaigns and attempts at pathologization on social media, and in particular on the Facebook page of the right-wing newspaper “Junge Freiheit” (Young Freedom).

But there’s no need to look at the most right-wing segments of our society to recognize that we, too, are stubbornly clinging to the accustomed two-gender model that leaves little or no room for non-binary genders. When children enter the world, the first sentence that greets them and their parents is: “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” We are eager to ask the parents of a newborn “What is it?”, but what we actually mean is, “What genitals does your child have?” Choosing one option or the other would seem to require no more than a quick look between the child’s legs to assess the genitals.

This first act of gender assignment is soon followed by others – such as attaching a pink or light-blue ribbon to a baby’s bald head to eliminate any doubt as to the child’s sex. The term “gender” goes beyond the purely biological definition of sex to include the social aspects of sexual identity, as defined by the respective culture. It also implies a certain understanding of gender roles which, in turn, require certain kinds of behavior – such as wearing a specific kind of clothing, exhibiting “male” or “female” qualities, and adhering to certain conventions. So an individual’s supposedly unambiguous biological sex is underscored and reinforced by the corresponding social gender. Together, they solidify the social norm of a two-gender model.

The power of this norm manifests itself in an especially violent way in operations performed on intersex babies and toddlers. Even today, and even in Germany, “corrective” operations are still being performed when a newborn’s external genitals cannot be unambiguously assigned to a certain sex (other forms of intersexuality are revealed only later, and in other ways). This happens before the children themselves have a voice, and it can have long-term, irreversible, physical and psychological consequences. Far less weight is given to a child’s fundamental human right to physical integrity and (gender) self-determination than to society’s insistence on unambiguous gender assignment.

“Gender is between your ears, not your legs!” While this statement may seem provocative, it reflects an insight that is central to the educational work of the 100% MENSCH project. It emphasizes that “gender” is a complex construct made up of numerous factors, and it is at the heart of the ethical principle that forms the basis for the work we do as a human rights organization: Every person has the right to sexual and physical self-determination.

In other words, no one else can decide what a person’s gender is – especially when that gender deviates from what is commonly regarded as “female” or “male.”
Recognizing people for who they truly are – not as how they are defined by others – and freeing the gender roles of “men” and “women” from the pressures of social expectations will require nothing less than a gender revolution.


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