Greek law until recently made it very difficult for transgender and queer individuals to change their gender identity. Now, the Greek government is introducing new legislation that will allow individuals to make this procedure faster and easier for themselves and their families. But this new proposed bill doesn’t include the right of intersex individuals to be legally identified as such.
Until now, transgender people could not change the gender recorded on their birth certificate or even their name, unless they’d been assessed by a psychiatrist and gone through gender reassignment surgery. According to this new proposed bill, people won’t need to seek medical treatment. There will be no need for them to follow a ‘normalization procedure’, using surgery or hormones to fit into narrow, legally-sanctioned stereotypes of what a male or female body looks like.
The Ministry of Justice carried a bill that finally will give the right to individuals to identify on their own their gender as they wish and not according to the gender that was recorded to the registry office and on their birth certificate. Individuals who want to change their gender and accordingly their name on public records, will have to make a confidential statement to the court, that will be inaccessible to the public, while the court’s decision will be registered in the registry office directly. An article of the proposed bill says that in the case that the individual that changed its registered gender or name has children (born in or out of marriage, civil partnership) there is not a single change in its right and obligation towards its children while at the same time there will be no change in the gender of the parent on the birth registration documents of the child.
But this march towards progress has left some people behind – notably, intersex people. There have been cases of people terminating their pregnancies because their child would be born intersex. Moreover, being born intersex is still considered to be a disease, an opinion supported by the majority of Greeks, (including some doctors) – and of course, by the Church. Whilst the Greek government’s proposed bill provides urgent and praiseworthy protections for adult transgender people, those protections aren’t extended to intersex people and and transgender minors – as a gender still needs to be registered at birth, and that gender cannot be changed until adulthood. This means that a teen intersex person cannot change their gender or name even if they has the consent of its family and in reality forces them to live a life in which they are not able to live as they desire. The combination of social stigma and legal barriers can make life incredibly difficult for intersex people in Greece.
At this stage, it’s probably worth clearing up some confusion about what ‘intersex’ actually means. According to Intersex Society of North America, ‘intersex’ is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be ‘female’ on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Alternatively, a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Alternatively, a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of their cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY. These conditions aren’t always obvious at birth. In some cases, a person may not realise they are intersex until reaching the age of puberty. In others, people never find out they’re intersex; that revelation emerges only during autopsy. It comes then as a surprise when we realize that even the most humble statistics provide us with a low estimate of 1.7% of the human population worldwide being diagnosed as intersex. The percentage above translates to around 120 000 000 individuals on earth.
Though it’s mostly talked about in medical terms, we should remember that being ‘intersex’; is a socially constructed concept, just like all other genders and sexual orientations. It reflects the need to distinguish, but not exclude, different aspects of human gender and sexuality: a word that’s used when it becomes evident that our concepts of ‘male’ and ‘female’ fail to capture the whole of human life. It works to plug a gap, to simplify social interactions, express what we feel to be true, and maintain order. In some ways, it describes whatever doesn’t fit into the gender binary as abberant – even as a disease.
Struggling to find a place in this order, intersex people – children in particular – face many challenges. We talked to S.I., a mother of an intersex child (named T.) and she told us her story. At 2008, while five months pregnant, she was asked to do an amniotic karyotype testing, because of her age (she was 43 years old, and her husband was 40). The test revealed that everything was normal, except that the baby had an extra X sex chromosome; an XXY karyotype. As this was something new to them, they went online and gathered all the information they possibly could so they would be properly prepared. Through the internet they connected with many XXY people around the globe, happy to share their personal stories with them and very willing to provide them with guidance and support. Unfortunately, her first obstetric doctors in the local hospital were not that well-informed: they called them on a hospital counseling meeting (two of them) and insisted that the “standard procedure” was to terminate any XXY fetus because they will be “A freak! A monster! Nature’s fault! […] A dumb person incapable of living on its own! A boy with such a small phallus that it better had none” According to S.I. The “termination” of intersex healthy fetuses is still valid as the “standard procedure” in local hospitals, and there is not a recorded number of the terminations. She calls it an “an ignorant genocide that has to be stopped, in Greece and globally.”
Later, as T was growing up, they weren’t allowed to attend the local public nursery school, because again they thought “he is not normal,”. After his parents strongly insisted on his right to attend, they accepted him, and he went without any further problem. However, in primary school things got nasty. Like many intersex children, T gets creative with his gender: since 3-4 years old he has steadily identifies as “mostly a boy, but a little girl too”. He loves lego, ballet dancing, long hair, dresses and skirts and prefers to play with girls. Schools used to the usual heteronormative script of what children ought to do, the kids found it very strange for a boy to have ballet classes, to have long hair, to like “girly” games and have soft manners and high-pitched voice. So they gave him a hard time by teasing and bullying him so much that he cut his hair in tears and refused to go to school. With a lot of work from his teachers and his psychologist, his schoolmates began to accept him and make a little space for his difference – so he managed to make it to the end of the year.
As T entered elementary school in September of last year, the parents provided his school teachers and the headmaster with a lot of information about both his unusual biological status and his gender-non-conforming, to raise awareness and try and foster an environment of acceptance. However, the teachers are refusing (or declare themselves unable, “unqualified”) to accept his gender fluidity and create positive awareness to his co-students. The parents want the teachers to simply convey the message that “it is ok to be a pink boy or a tomboy girl. It is ok to be different from distinct male/female because gender is a colorful spectrum that everybody can fit in”. But the school refuses to discuss it intersex issues or the the idea that gender is a spectrum, because (as they said to the parents) they don’t have such orders and guidelines from the Greek Ministry of Education, and they are terrified of the possible bad reactions of other homophobic/transphobic or religious parents.
So T. is again being teased and bullied because educators refused to offer kids accurate and information about what intersex conditions and gender-non-conformity is. He is being denied the acceptance and support he needs to freely express his gender like other kids. He d already wants for quit school if things do not change to the better. This problem that is faced by T. and his family, probably will be harder in the coming years, his mother says, because of social and educational ignorance, because intersex people just aren’t given the same rights. These problems could be prevented if the government included intersex people in (and indeed trans children) in their push to protect the rights of those who don’t fall into the expected biological and social categories of male and female.
T’s mother is convinced that this fight is a fight for civil rights. “Because gender is a spectrum. Gender-fluid children do exist. Intersex and trans children do exist. They are all perfectly normal human children that deserve respect” she adds that “they have human rights, and they need support to secure their rights in order to develop safe and free their true, unique gender and personality. They have to have the right to decide or create their gender at their own pace as they grow and not be pushed to identify strictly as males/females only. This push towards preserving the only-two-accepted-as-normal genders, whilst shaming and excluding all others, is putting a lot of social and psychological stress on these kids. It compromises their physical and psychological health, due to a lot of well-documented dangers (as gender bullying, harassment, personality assaulting, physical violence, depression, school quitting and even youth suicides)”.
Protecting such people would mean enshrining the right to define one’s own gender when you’re capable of making that decision, without the need for surgery or the oversight of authority figures. Throughout Europe, positive steps have been made in this direction. In 2014, Denmark became the first European country to adopt a gender identity law based on the same self-determination principle whereby an individual above the age of 18 may obtain a change in legal sex on the basis of her/his gender declaration, without the need for verification by a third party. In Luxembourg, proposed legislation on the ‘reform of filiation’ will allow the sex/gender marker of a child on childbirth certificates to be left blank: “The bill includes changes on granting legal recognition for intersex or transsexual individuals, and that could guarantee equality of all persons, regardless of biological sex, gender identity and Human rights and intersex people gender expression.” Similarly, the Maltese bill entitled the ‘Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act’ which came into force in April 2015 allows parents or guardians to postpone the inclusion of a sex marker on the birth certificate until the child’s gender identity has been determined. It also allows the gender registered on one’s birth certificate to be changed at any point in life, via a simple administrative procedure.
The Maltese Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act. It provides transgender and intersex people equal treatment protection under anti-hate crime and hate speech provisions. And importantly, the bill makes “medical intervention which is driven by social factors without the consent of the minor” a violation of the law. This effectively outlaws the common practise of performing invasive surgeries on the bodies of intersex infants to ‘align’ them with one gender or another – which can cause long-lasting complications and loss of sexual function.
It would be naive to think that such a reform could be made easily, unnoticed by the country’s right wing and religious groups. The Greek Orthodox Church, is an institution rife with homophobes and transphobes, and many clerics and bishops made statements labelling LGBTQI+ individuals – intersex people in particular – as psychologically disordered persons in need of treatment, and at risk of ‘delinquent’ habits like prostitution or drug use. Some say that LGBTQI+ activists are working on behalf of ‘Zionists and Jews’, and that their ultimate goal is to tear apart the traditional patriarchal form of the family and to enforce an anti-christian and anti-greek agenda by corrupting the greek youth. The same rhetoric is used by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party. And unfortunately, polls show that a big part of the Greek society (35%) holds similar views. In the last few years, many LGBTQI+ individuals have been attacked by neo-Nazis and fundamentalists. People report that in some cases the police although knew who the perpetrators were did nothing to arrest them – or even tried to stop the victims from pressing charges.
In the context of such violence and discrimination, a change of law can’t provide a perfect solution. But it clears the legal ground so that intersex individuals can begin to carve out a place in Greek society. Legislation provides a certain acknowledgement for the identity – and moreover, the value – of intersex individuals. At the same time, it can start a ongoing, meaningful discussion about a topic that so many people consider to be deeply taboo. A change of law won’t solve everything – but it will actually create a legal framework for a society where the rights of LGBTQI+ people are protected.