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Gender more than anatomy

  • 22 July 2011

I am comfortable in the sex assigned to me at birth. I'm female. Roar. Or, as certain elected members of our cabinet and shadow cabinet would have it, meow.

However, I do find it bizarre and slightly offensive when I am asked to report my sex on forms, other than those of the medical variety. It's not as though being female gives me any advantages other than a Medicare rebate on a gynaecologist. Why do institutions think it's important for them to recognise my sex?

This 9 August will mark the centenary of the first Australian census. Families, friends and reluctant cohabitants alike will collaboratively submit their statistics to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The findings will be fascinating now, and possibly amusing in a few centuries time. But they will not reflect what Australia really looks like.

The census records demographic facts, which are used by all levels of government and other service providers to accurately distribute services. But it won't recognise the fact that some people in Australia don't identify as either female or male, and that such people have specific needs. Some of these people are intersex, born with androgenous sex organs. Others are transgender, or 'genderqueer': people whose experience of gender does not match conventionally with their biological sex.

In the census, it is compulsory to specify one's sex. If this space is left blank, a sex is assigned based on other information provided, or by the flip of a coin, emulating the 50/50 sex division thought to exist in Australia.

This year, Nepal was the first state to include a 'third gender' in its national census. This was the outcome of radical campaigning by a queer rights advocacy organisation, the Blue Diamond Society, led by Nepal's first openly gay parliamentarian, Sunil Babu Plant.

The census was Nepal's first since the nation's successful establishment as a democratic republic, following the fall of a Hindu monarchy and the end of a 13-year Maoist-led civil war. The provision was secured by Plant's victory against the government in the Supreme Court, whose ruling guaranteed full equality for sexual and gender minorities.

'Gender' is the performance of socially prescribed behaviours along sexual lines, which inevitably results in the differential treatment of men and women — to the detriment,