On the German trans-debate
The debate over trans rights in Germany has also become bitter and polarized.
Bubbling underneath the surface of German public life is a debate that closely mirrors one that has been going on in the English-speaking world over the past couple of years - the thorny issue of gender identity.
In this instance though the villain of the piece is not a beloved children’s author, but the grande dame of German feminism, Alice Schwarzer.
Schwarzer shot to prominence in the early 1970s when she convinced several hundred women to publicly declare that they had had an abortion (it later turned out that not all had) at a time when it was still illegal. The campaign is widely viewed as a key turning point that led to legalization in 1974.
At the age of 70, Schwarzer is still one of the most influential intellectuals in Germany due to her role as publisher of the popular woman’s magazine Emma.
Never afraid to denounce opponents, Schwarzer once told a Jewish author on live television she was “not only a sexist, but also a fascist.” The author, Esther Vilar, had written a book claiming that men were actually oppressed by women. “You are disowning your sex and you are betraying your sex,” Schwarzer reprimanded her.
Half a century later, it is Schwarzer who finds herself being denounced for her reactionary views - this time on trans-identity.
The argument has boiled over since the new government announced its intention to change the law so that being male or female would become a simple matter of making a declaration at one’s local Standesamt.
Schwarzer has been waging a campaign against this proposal on the pages of Emma, arguing that it would allow men to gain access to places previously prohibited to them, such as women’s toilets or prisons, by simply telling a bureaucrat that they are now female.
Most egregious, according to Emma, is the fact that the Green party are already acting as if their proposal is on the statute books.
Among their new MdBs is Tessa Ganserer, a representative for Nuremberg who entered the Bundestag via the party’s Frauenquote. But Ganserer is still not legally a woman. Officially known as Markus, Ganserer has never formally had a sex change. According to Emma, the new MdB also hasn’t undergone sex change surgery.
In January, the magazine ran an article quoting a feminist organization called Geschlecht zählt, which expressed outrage that a man was able to take a place on the party list reserved for women. It showed that the Greens were trying to replace a definition of sex “based on objective biological indicators” with “a subjective feeling based on gender cliches,” the organization complained.
Ganserer for his part, says that he has not yet legally changed his sex, as doing so would betray something he has been fighting for for years.
The Transsexuellengesetz, in force since the 1980s, requires people to go through expensive and intrusive psychological assessments before the state will recognize them as belonging to the opposing sex. The assessment asks questions on intimate subjects such as masturbation, something Ganserer describes as “anti-human rights.”
“I can't fight the law politically on the one hand and then subject myself to it on the other,” he told Der Spiegel.
Emma’s reporting on the case, especially its decision to refer to Ganserer as Markus, has led to stinging criticism from younger feminists.
One journalist for the left-wing TAZ newspaper said Schwarzer was “selling transphobic violence dressed up as feminist self-defence.” Another article in the same newspaper accused her of believing in “a version of biology from the Middle Ages.”
The liberal weekly Die Zeit declared Emma to be “a pseudo-feminist magazine”, while the author Anne Wizorek described it as a “servant of the patriarchy.”
Indeed, Schwarzer does find herself making common cause with the CDU party and the conservative Bild Zeitung.
CDU domestic affairs spokesman Marc Henrichmann told Bild that: "The coalition’s stance on gender will, in the worst case, allow sex offenders to enter women’s safe spaces at the stroke of a pen. Protection from sexual assault by criminal copy cats must take precedence over fears of perceived 'discrimination'.”
The government has countered these fears by saying that any establishment could still exercise its right to remove someone off its property should they abuse the rules. “If institutions feel that a space is threatened, they can always turn people away,” said Sven Lehmann, queer spokesman for the Greens.
Something that gets less attention, but seems to be a more likely consequence of the law, is conflicts in which neither party has malicious intent.
For instance, in inner city Berlin with its large queer and immigrant communities, how will competing ideas on gender identity be managed in public dressing rooms? Will conservative Muslim women still feel comfortable using a swimming pool dressing room once people with male sexual organs can more easily access them?
For Alice Schwarzer, listening to the concerns of conservative Muslims is probably low down her list of priorities - she’s spent the past couple of decades decrying the hijab as a symbol of female persecution.
How the Green party would respond in the event of such a conflict would be more interesting.