Gender more than anatomy


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, I believe, of both. It is what makes small girls play operatic family dramatisations and small boys play super truck racing.

Mainstream feminist and gender theorists argue that gender is socially constructed. The critical response to a Canadian couple who made news with their choice to raise a 'genderless baby' illustrates just how invested we are in these binaries.

Sex, however, supposedly describes physicality alone. I don't question the importance of registering one's sex in the census. As well as addressing physical differences that identify different health and education needs, this information can correlate to those needs that align with mainstream understandings of gender — those associated with, for example, unemployed males, or working single mothers. It can also help us measure the economic status of women in Australia.

However the exclusion of a third gender renders those who fall outside the gender binaries invisible. There are no comprehensive population studies of people who don't identify either as male or female in Australia, and the upcoming census will fail to identify the specific needs of sexual minorities.

Australia's laws regarding transsexuality are relatively progressive. Following sex reassignment surgery, an individual is entitled to be issued with a new birth certificate, unless they are already legally married. This is progressive in that it recognises transsexuality as a phenomenon, but also regressive in that it demands transgender people to physically conform to a sex binary.

Sex reassignment surgery is very expensive, and results in infertility. Children in Australia who are diagnosed as transsexual and whose parents consent to the prescribed sex reassignment surgery are effectively sterilised without their own consent. The push for surgery obfuscates the delineation of gender and sex (the former is between one's ears, the latter is between one's legs).

Advocacy group Organisation Intersex International is urging intersex people to list their religion as 'Intersex' in order that their gender is recognised. As was the case with the 'Jedi Knight' phenomenon that began a decade ago, the religion question is being subsumed by the political motivations of people who feel the census misrepresents them.

People need to be understood in fundamentally humanistic and dignified terms. Dissolving gender, or at least tempering its negative impact on identities, will not happen overnight. But for now, people whose identities are neither male nor female need to be counted. 

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer and the immediate past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, census.transgender, transsexual, genderless baby, nepal, gender, intersex



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Existing comments

In Ellena's thoughtful piece, one statement jumped out to me as highly misleading: "Children in Australia who are diagnosed as transsexual and whose parents consent to the prescribed sex reassignment surgery are effectively sterilised without their own consent."

This seems to mix up two different groups of children: those who are born intersex (including those who are born with ambiguous genitalia, or genitalia which do not clearly match their genetic sex), with children who are born in most cases with normal external sex organs, but who in childhood already manifest a strong identity or desire to identify as the gender opposite to that suggested by their external genitalia.

The former case is sometimes (even now) treated with surgical intervention in early life, and there is justifiable concern about the appropriateness of this before a child is able to walk and talk. (This is not, however, in any sense the same as diagnosing a child as transsexual.)

However, the latter case is never treated with surgery in childhood - not in Australia, and not in most other countries, to my knowledge. Transsexualism, transgenderism, or Gender Identity Disorder (variously known) is a condition which has been described as where the "brain sex" does not match the external genitalia. Surgery to alter the genitalia in cases of transsexualism does not take place in Australia until the person is 18 years old, and not until they have run the gauntlet of specialists, therapists and psychologists to "prove" that they really mean it, and understand what they are doing. This is categorically different to the case where a child is "sterilised without their own consent", as Ellena puts it.

None of this is to diminish the situation of people who are, and identify as, intersex. But it should serve to make clear that transsexual and intersex children are two quite different phenomena.
Mormon Socialist | 22 July 2011

Elena, I too thank you for this piece and I also acknowledge and agree with Mormon Socialist's comment.

Ultimately, (and I will only speak re trans here) we would like our birth certificates to be based more on self-identified gender rather than surgery. This would be more representative of the infinite possibilities for sex/gender than surgery-based birth certificates. Also this respects those who cannot undergo surgery for medical or financial reasons (just two issues).

I would also offer for further detail on these issues.

Again, thank you for this piece - it is very reassuring to know others beyond trans and intersex have an interest in thiese issues.

Sally Goldner
TransGender Victoria
Sally Goldner | 25 July 2011

Perhaps, as an interim measure, you could tick the box for both 'Male' and 'Female'.....
Miss Louise | 26 July 2011


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