Germany is the first European country to recognize a third genderS

Starting this November, German parents will be able to select male, female, or “indeterminate” when filling out their newborn’s birth certificate. This means that parents won’t have to label their baby’s gender, thereby allowing those born with intersex characteristics to make a decision later in life. Or not.

The new law, which goes into effect on November 1, was passed back in May, but has only now started getting widespread attention — a mere six weeks after Australia became the first country in the world to introduce legal guidelines on gender recognition. Back in July, the country added “intersex” and other gender designations to official documents, like passports.

An intersex person is someone who has a variation in sex characteristics, including chromosomes and genitals that don’t allow them to be identified neatly as either male or female.

A famous example is South African sprinter Caster Semenya. In her case, she has internal testes which produce elevated levels of testosterone. Though her sex is ambiguous, she identifies as female, which has led to a number of problems for her as an athlete.

Traditionally, parents have to select male or female when filling out the birth certificate, giving children virtually no say in the matter. What's more, as Silvan Agius of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association recently noted, intersex babies are often surgically made female — which is the easier and more convenient option — but one that can eventually lead to physical and psychological problems.

As Germany sets this important precedent, however, the rest of the European Union (aside from possibly Finland) is lagging behind. Spiegel Online reports:

According to Silvan Agius...the European Union is lagging behind on the issue. Though Brussels commissioned a report on trans and intersex minorities in 2010, and has since attempted to coordinate efforts to prohibit gender discrimination, progress has been halting.

"Things are moving slower than they should at the European level," says Agius. "Though Brussels has ramped up efforts to promote awareness of trans and intersex discrimination, I would like to see things speed up."

The subsequent EU report on potential changes to European Union law, which was published in 2012 and co-authored by Agius, found that discrimination against trans and intersex people was still "rampant in all EU countries."

On a related note, Sweden recently introduced a new gender-neutral pronoun, “hen.” As we reported last year:

[In] an effort to work towards yet even greater levels of gender equality, Sweden now wants to do it through the channel of linguistic gender-neutrality. A good number of forward-looking Swedes have determined that government and society should no longer recognize any legal distinctions between the sexes. To that end, they have officially introduced the new gender-neutral pronoun, "hen," to the vernacular. To make it all the more official, they added it to the country's National Encyclopedia and defined it as a "proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he [han in Swedish] and she [hon]."

Wow. If Germany and Australia are concerned that the rest of Europe is “lagging behind,” I’d hate to hear what they have to say about those of us in the Americas.

Perhaps the best thing about the new legislation is that it doesn't force people to choose to identify as "male" or "female," once they reach adulthood. Instead, intersex people could conceivably live out their lives without ever having to choose one or the other.

Top image: Holbox/Shutterstock.