From ‘Binary +’ to ‘Binary No More’: On the recognition of a third sex in German law
Dr. Susanne Lilian Goessl, LL.M. (Tulane)
Akademische Rätin a.Z., Universität Bonn
Institut für Deutsches, Europäisches und Internationales Familienrecht
In October 2017 the German Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht – BVerfG) decided that the German civil status registration law (Personenstandsgesetz – PStG) has to either offer the option to positively register a “third sex” or abolish the sex registration obligation at all. This was until now the final step of the German law to a gradual shift from a strictly binary towards a more open approach. Until the end of 2018 the legislative has to decide which of the two options will become German law.
According to sec. 21 para. 1 no. 1 PStG at birth the sex of the child has to be registered as male or female. Moreover, since 2013, sec. 22 para. 3 PStG provides the possibility to leave the registration of the sex an empty section in case of impossibility to determine the sex clearly as male or female. The law does not provide the option to positively register a third sex. Thus, the former registration system can be described as a “binary +”-system: limited to male, female, “plus” the empty-section option. The latter option was not supposed to challenge the binary system.
After sec. 22 para. 3 PStG was enacted, there was a discussion whether this “empty section” was mandatory for those not clearly identifiable as “male” or “female”. The provision was supposed to take the pressure from parents of a new-born to determine the sex from the very beginning and avoid “adjusting” surgeries. Some scholars, myself included, hence, had proposed to interpret the wording of the new rule in a “soft” way, an opportunity to leave the field empty rather than an obligation to do so. Others took the wording of the rule literally. Following this literal interpretation, which was also the one adopted by the German Supreme Court (Bundesgerichtshof – BGH), the sex registration of a child as either male or female was mandatory at birth, as was the empty section in case of intersexuality.
Compared to other legal systems only differentiating between “male” and “female”, sec. 22 para. 3 PStG is progressive. Nevertheless, the BVerfG decided that this option is not sufficient. At least as long as the system requires a person to register the sex, the merely “binary +” registration system is incompatible with the German Constitution (Basic Law – Grundgesetz – GG).
2. History of the case
The German Supreme Court (Bundesgerichtshof – BGH) decided in June 2016 that de iure no third registration option (other than „male” or “female”) existed. They based the decision on a strict literal interpretation of civil status law. Furthermore, in her understanding the German civil and family law was strictly binary, therefore not leaving any room for a third option.
The BVerfG followed the BGH insofar as it also interpreted the civil status law literally and narrowly. Consequently, the rules were found to be incompatible with the German constitution (Basic Law – Grundgesetz – GG). An obligation to either register the sex by birth as either male or female (according to sec. 21 para. 1 no. 3 PStG), or mandatorily leave the field empty in case of a third sex (sec. 22 para. 3 PStG), violated the constitutional rights of the individual, especially the right of protection of gender identity. Moreover, the aforementioned obligations constituted a discrimination on grounds of the sex. Instead, German civil status law were to either abolish any registration obligation, or introduce a third option. Which option is preferable remained to be decided by the legislative, not the judiciary.
Until the end of 2018 new rules have to be enacted. Any current proceedings regarding a third sex entry have to be stayed until that date.
3. Right to sexual self-determination and protection of gender identity
Most importantly, the court found a violation of a certain aspect of the general personality right, as constituted in Article 1 para. 1 in conjunction with Article 2 para. 1 GG. The concrete aspect was specified as the right to sexual self-determination and protection of gender identity. This specific right has been developed and shaped by the Constitutional Court in several decisions on transsexuality, in consequence eroding a restrictive and physical-oriented law to change the legal gender step by step. The aforementioned right includes the right of each individual to be assigned the gender to which the person belongs according to their psychological or physical constitution. The State is only allowed to interfere with said right for exceptional grave reasons.
A binary registration system not providing for a positive third option interferes with that right. The interference cannot be compensated by the empty section option. An empty section is not equal to a positive registration. Instead, it gives the impression that the individual has no sex/gender at all. The right of gender identity and sexual self-determination, nevertheless, also protects having a (positive) third sex that is neither male nor female, and no sex entry at all.
Moreover, the court explicitly rejected the opinion that the German civil law was strictly binary. Neither the constitution nor the German civil law require binary rules. This applies especially as the recognition of a third sex does not interfere with any third parties rights, one reason why the state usually might interfere. Thus, as there is no justification for the violation of the individuals’ rights, the rules were declared to be incompatible with the Constitution [link to the blog article to the decision?].
4. Discrimination on grounds of the sex
Furthermore, the Court made an important point regarding the interpretation of the anti-discrimination rule, Article 3 GG. It clarified that discrimination on grounds of the sex (Article 3 para. 3 GG) also includes a third sex which is neither male nor female. Article 3 para. 2 GG, instead, explicitly requires the equality between men and women. The rule, nevertheless, does not limit „sex“ to those two groups. Article 3 para. 2 GG is meant to positively pursue equality of men and women. Article 3 para. 3 GG, instead, is meant to prohibit discrimination on ground of the sex, the latter concept not limited to men and women.
In the case of the third sex, there is a discrimination on ground of the sex: On the one hand, we have a group of people being „male“ or „female“. Those have the right to register their sex positively. On the other hand, we have a group of people neither being exclusively „male“ or „female“. They lack the option to positively register their sex. They can only leave their entry field empty. An empty section is not equal to a positive entry. It treats the individual as if not having any sex at all.
5. Personal assessment of the decision
The decision is clearly led by the BVerfG’s motive to trigger a reform of family and gender recognition law. Thus, the court did not consider the possibility to interpret the existing rules in a “softer” way. Nevertheless, the Court is right in the conclusion that a legislative reform is necessary. Several rules in German family law assume that only men and women exist. Furthermore, after making marriage accessible to same-sex couples 2017 and changing concepts of parenthood, such a reform is needed in many areas of family law. There are already working groups established to overhaul German family law, especially provisions on marriage and parentage. These two areas coincide with the two areas in family law where the distinction between and limitation on men and women is the most paramount. So, it makes sense to start an overall reform of the existing rules.
6. What is coming next?
The German parliament now has two options: She can abolish any sex registration at all or he has to establish positively at least one third sex entry option.
a) Necessary reforms
Both options require adaptations of the German law. Such an adaptation is necessary since 2013, when sec. 22 para. 3 PStG was introduced. As a consequence, since 2013 the possibility exists that a person is neither male nor female but has an empty section instead of a registered sex. Following the opening of marriage to same-sex couples, marriage law should soon be free from distinctions such as “name of wife or name of husband” and refer merely to “name of either of the spouses”. Hopefully, the adaptation will also consider the option that marriage is not only available to couples of “the same sex” and “of a different sex” but also to a person “with no registered sex”.
Parentage at the moment assigns motherhood exclusively to women giving birth and fatherhood to men being married to the mother, recognizing fatherhood or being determined as biological father by a court (sec. 1591 et seq. German Civil Code – Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch – BGB). These provisions could be liberalized to legally assign parenthood merely to the person giving birth and the person married to the birth parent or recognizing parenthood/determined as biological parent.
b) Probability of an abolition of the registration
Personally, I am not optimistic that any sex-registration will be removed from the German law by the end of 2018. One might argue that after granting marriage to couples regardless of their respective sexes the positive registration legally is no longer a necessity. Still, some provisions, especially regarding maternity and paternity, distinguish between male and female parents. It is unclear whether in the nearby future these provisions will be overcome by reforms (even though they should be, see a)). Furthermore, there are several provisions requiring a sex registration (following the civil status registration) for mere statistical and administrative purposes. To abolish those requirements means to change several registers and registration systems, hence, a substantial technical adjustment. Moreover, possession of relevant data for statistical purposes is, in itself, not a bad thing, as it may be used for research and, subsequently, anti-discrimination measures. Furthermore, the passport standards of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) require an entry as either “M”, “F” or “X” regarding the sex, thus a positive registration. Finally, even if the German legal system no longer requires the determination of a person’s sex, other legal systems do, e.g. as a requirement to marry, to determine the name or parenthood. Thus, a legal system with no sex registration at all creates problems for its citizens as soon as they want to act in a cross-border context and under a different jurisdiction and law applicable. Private international law techniques might offer solutions but it remains unclear whether states will adopt them in the near future.
Each of these reasons might not be compelling in itself. Nevertheless, in an overall assessment of all these reasons, I believe an immediate, absolute abolition of the sex registration would create a plethora of practical problems for authorities as well as people involved than the introduction of a positive third entry option.
c) Introduction of a positive “third option”
A positive third entry option could be introduced thorugh minor adaptations of the existing rules. As previously mentioned, the German law never defines “sex” as limited to male and female. Thus, the sex registration requirement of the civil status law (sec. 21 para. 1 no. 3 PStG) could be amended by a clarifying rule that “sex” is not limited to “male” and “female” but also includes a third option, e.g. “non-binary”.
Furthermore, the rule that requires an empty section in case of intersexuality could be changed in the way that such an empty section is not mandatory but optional. As a result, the German system would have four options: “male”, “female”, “non-binary” and the empty section.
d) Further perspectives
Civil status law, family law and the law regulation the change of the legal gender urgently require revision and modernisation. There have been some very progressive attempts so far. E.g. in spring 2017 the Bundesrat (the second chamber of legislation representing the Federal States) applied for a revision and proposed to follow the results of a study on intersexuality and transsexuality in German law. The study had been conducted by the German Institute for Human Rights for the Germany Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth. It proposes a very sophisticated revision of the whole system: The sex entry has to be left empty by birth and can be filled later. The determination of a person’s sex is based solely on the free declaration of said person. There are four options, including a non-binary one where the person can add a personal concept to describe his/her gender. A change afterwards is also easy with a latency of 12 months. The proposal was criticized for not providing mechanisms to prevent abuse, either regarding several sex changes or regarding the (frivolous) choice of gender concept. Furthermore, it strictly applies the requirements the Constitutional Court developed regarding gender identity. On the other hand, the current German law still has a very physically-biologically based approach to determine a person’s sex. Changes of fundamental approaches in democratic societies usually require discussion and, consequently, time. So, a complete overhaul of the German family law, which might result in an open system and focuses on the self-determination of the individual, may appear tempting. But it also sounds like more time is needed to start and, subsequently, implement such a project aimed at profound socio-ethical change.
 E.G. Susanne Lilian Gössl, ‘Eintragung im Geburtenregister als « inter » oder « divers »’ Das Standesamt (2015), 171, 172; Tobias Helms, ‘Personenstandsrechtliche und familienrechtliche Aspekte der Intersexualität vor dem Hintergrund des neuen § 22 Abs. 3 PStG’, in I. Götz, I. Schwenzer, K. Seelmann and J. Taupitz (eds.), Familie – Recht – Ethik. Festschrift für Gerd Brudermüller zum 65. Geburtstag (München, 2014), 301, 304 et seq.; MoP Jelpke, Deutscher Bundestag, Plenarprotokoll 17/219 vom 31.1.2013, p. 27220 (C); MoP Tauber, Deutscher Bundestag, Plenarprotokoll 17/219 vom 31.1.2013, p. 27222 (C); Empfehlungen des Bundesrats, BR-Drs. 29/1/14, 04.03.14, p. 8.
The softer interpretation by the court could have been that the existing rules already allow the registration of a third sex. Then the Constitutional Court would refer the case back to the BGH (or lower instance courts) with the obligation to interprete the provisions in compatibility with the constitution. As “sex” is never ever defined in the German law, such an interpretation would have been possible. Anyhow, the BVerfG thought that we need a reform and wanted to push the legislative, not the judiciary to initiate that reform.
 BGH, 22.6.2016, XII ZB 52/15, Zeitschrift für das gesamte Familienrecht 2016, 1580.
 BGH, 22.6.2016, XII ZB 52/15, Zeitschrift für das gesamte Familienrecht 2016, 1580.
 BVerfG, 10.10.2017, 1 BvR 2019/16, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift 2017, 3643-3648.
 Extensive analysis (in German): Völzmann, http://verfassungsblog.de/gleiche-freiheit-fuer-alle-zur-freiheitsrechtlichen-begruendung-des-bverfg-in-der-entscheidung-zur-dritten-option/.
 BVerfG, 10.10.2017, 1 BvR 2019/16, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift 2017, 3643-3648, para. 37 et seq.
 BVerfG, 10.10.2017, 1 BvR 2019/16, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift 2017, 3643-3648, 3643; BVerfG, 11.10.1978, 1 BvR 16/72, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift 1979, 595-596 para. 50; BVerfG, 11.1.2011, 1 BvR 3295/07, Das Standesamt 2011, 141, 141; Entwurf eines Gesetzes zur Umsetzung europäischer Richtlinien zur Verwirklichung des Grundsatzes der Gleichbehandlung vom 6.8.2006, BT-Drucks. 16/1780, p. 31.
 BVerfG, 15.8.1996, 2 BvR 1833/95, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift 1997, 1632, 1633; BVerfG, 26.1.1993, 1 BvL 38/92 et al., Neue Juristische Wochenschrift 1993, 1517, 1517; BVerfG, 16.3.1982, 16.3.1982, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift 1982, 2061, 2062; BVerfG, 11.10.1978, 1 BvR 16/72, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift 1979, 595-596 Para. 49; BVerfG, 21.12.1977, 1 BvL 1/75; 1 BvR 147/75, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift 1978, 807, 808.
 Gössl op cit n 1 supra, 173; Jens T. Theilen, ‘Intersexualität, Personenstandsrecht und Grundrechte’ Das Standesamt (2014), 1, 3; Jens T. Theilen, ‘Intersexualität bleibt unsichtbar: Kritische Anmerkung zum Beschluss des Bundesgerichtshofs zu nicht-binären Eintragungen im Personenstandsrecht’ Das Standesamt (2016), 295, 300.
 BVerfG, 10.10.2017, 1 BvR 2019/16, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift 2017, 3643-3648, Para. 43; Nina Althoff, Greta Schabram and Petra Follmar-Otto, Geschlechtervielfalt im Recht. Status quo und Entwicklung von Regelungs modellen zur Anerkennung und zum Schutz von Geschlechtervielfalt Begleitmaterial zur Interministeriellen Arbeitsgruppe Inter & Transsexualität – Band 8 (Januar 2017), 15, 45 et seq. available at https://www.berlin.de/ba-mitte/politik-und-verwaltung/beauftragte/gleichstellung/geschlechtervielfalt_im_recht.pdf; Susanne Lilian Gössl, ‘Intersexuelle Menschen und ihre personenstandsrechtliche Erfassung’ Neue Zeitschrift für Familienrecht (2016), 1122, 1123; Wolf Sieberich, ‘Das unbestimmte Geschlecht’ Zeitschrift für das gesamte Familienrecht (2013), 1180 1181.
 Article 3 [Equality before the law] (inofficial translation)
(1) All persons shall be equal before the law.
(2) Men and women shall have equal rights. The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist.
(3) No person shall be favoured or disfavoured because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith, or religious or political opinions. No person shall be disfavoured because of disability.
 Extensive analysis (in German): Markard, http://verfassungsblog.de/struktur-und-teilhabe-zur-gleichheitsdogmatischen-bedeutung-der-dritten-option/
 Gössl op cit n 1 supra, 172; Gössl op cit n 10 supra 1123 et seq.
 Susanne Lilian Gössl, ‘Anmerkung zu BVerfG, 10.10.2017 – 1 BvR 2019/16’ Neue Juristische Wochenschrift (2017), 3648.
 Gössl, From Question of Fact to Question of Law to Question of Private International Law: The question whether a person is male, female, or …?, 12 Journal of Private International Law (2016) 261-280.
 Althoff, Schabram, Follmar-Otto op cit n 10 supra, available at https://www.berlin.de/ba-mitte/politik-und-verwaltung/beauftragte/gleichstellung/geschlechtervielfalt_im_recht.pdf (in German).
 E.g. Nina Dethloff, Susanne Lilian Gössl, ‘Country Report for Germany’, in M. van den Brink and J. Tigchelaar (eds.), M/V en verder. Sekseregistratie door de overheid en de juridische positie van transgenders (Den Haag, 2014), 137, 141, available at https://www.wodc.nl/binaries/2393-volledige-tekst_tcm28-73312.pdf.