Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gender-X: Problem, not Progress

It's apparently gender week here on EOIAS. Yesterday I started things off with a rant about the problems of Ablowing Chaz Bono. Today I continue my tradition of not providing positive cases with a rant about Australian Passports.

Two weeks ago I read an article about the addition of Gender-X as a category to Australian Passports. Now that I’ve stewed the concept for a while, I present my reflections to you, my six quazi-loyal readers.

Australian passports will now have three gender options — male, female and indeterminate — under new guidelines to remove discrimination against transgender and intersex people, the government said Thursday.
Intersex people, who are biologically not entirely male or female, will be able to list their gender on passports as "X."
Transgender people, whose perception of their own sex is at odds with their biology, will be able to pick whether they are male or female if their choice is supported by a doctor's statement. Transgender people cannot pick "X."

Hurrah! A change to our long-entrenched conception of gender! We have tossed aside the shackles of cultural norms and embraced a brighter, better tomorrow wherein everyone is respected and recognized for who they are. Finally those whose life experience renders problematic our binary categorization shall find a new hope for recognition, a new possibility for normalcy, by marking, effectively, “other” as their gender.

Wait a minute. Male…Female…Other… Why, that almost seems as if it’s compounding the problem, rather than solving it.

“But wait,” you gasp, “you suggest that this change is problematic? This is change! We love change! We can believe in change!” Yes, yes, I know that you love change, gentle lambs. But gather, if you will, around aunt/uncle _J_ as (s)he explains how a half-assed, kneejerk reaction by unthinking, uncritical bureaucrats might actually be an instantiation of dumb that retards progress, rather than an instance of amelioration. Let’s start with the three main problems.

Problem #1: Gender != Sex.
Note that Gender-X is a new gender option that provides persons who are biologically intersexed or transgendered with a new means of self-identification. See what they did there? They collapsed sex and gender into one category. But this is problematic, cause it’s incorrect.

The term “sex” refers to biological states. Sex-male or Sex-female is determined by sexual organs, chromosomes, hormones, or various other biological features. One may objectively discern another’s sex by inspecting biological traits, in a sense, in most cases.

The term “gender’ refers to culturally constructed general ideas, such as notions of masculine or feminine, which serve as categories into which various traits are placed. These categories are usually posited onto children, but then become a means of self-identification in the construction of one’s self-narrative.

Gender-X problematically collapses these two drastically different notions into one category. Imagine an individual who identifies as gender-male and sex-intersex, either because they were born with a vagina and seek an upgrade, or were born with a unique genital arrangement, or something along those lines. Given the passport options, suppose that they chose “male” as their gender, since they are gender-male. Well, this does not account for their intersexuality. Alright, so suppose they select Gender-X, given their intersexuality. But now they have violated their own sense of self, since they are gender-male.

Holy shit, we’ve a problem.

Problem #2: Requires a doctor’s statement.
According to the article, a transgender person requires a doctor’s note to justify their selection on the passport form. If gender is actually a personal choice, or personal feeling, or something along those lines, between culturally constructed categories, then why is a doctor required to justify, or lend credibility to, a transgender person’s selection? If I’ve a vagina, but identify as gender-male, why do I need a doctor’s note to select “male” on the form? This seems to place an undo burden onto transgender people.

Additionally, by treating transgender as something for which a doctor’s note is required, a relation has been made between transgenderism and the medial profession. This relationship leads to the notion that transgenderism is medical, is a disease, is an illness, is somehow at all the purview of a medical professional. And it probably isn’t that sort of thing.

Finally, in the paragraph discussing the need for a doctor’s note, we find this statement: “people whose perception of their own sex is at odds with their biology”. See what they did there?

Problem #3: Gender-X reinforces difference and non-compliance.
'X' is really quite important because there are people who are indeed genetically ambiguous and were probably arbitrarily assigned as one sex or the other at birth," Pratt said. "It's a really important recognition of people's human rights that if they choose to have their sex as 'indeterminate,' that they can."

When we add to male and female a third option of X, that option, as a nameless, featureless X, reinforces the sense of difference, non-compliance, and non-belonging. It maintains the standard of normalcy at male and female, and dumps everyone else into the bland, ambiguous realm of X-ness. Instead of engaging the nuances of gender and sexuality, the X bundles together everything that is else. It is akin to a form that states:

Pick your Race: [ ] White [ ] Black [ ] Other

It’s essentially enforcing the sense that there are some who belong, those whose boxes are definite, and some who do not belong, those who exist outside the standard bifurcation. While male and female articulate what a thing is, in most cases, Gender-X simply states that the entity in question has no is-ness, or has a really complicated is-ness with which we can’t be bothered.

Those, I think, are the three main problems.

The mistake in treating this as an instance of amelioration is that Gender-X does not actually improve the situation; Gender-X does not make things better. It collapses sex and gender into one thing, which further confuses the issues. It invokes the medical profession, casting this all within an unhelpful, fallacious context. The category, itself, is a vague, non-descript proclamation of elseness rather than a nuanced articulation of the particular, unique aspects of the individual for whom the passport serves as identification. All they have done is allow people who do not fit into the traditional, binary categories to proclaim that they do not fit, provided that they have a doctor’s note, and do not mind that “Gender-X” may not at all apply to their unique situation.

You might count the recognition of the problem as progress; at least the issues of intersexuality and transgenderism are being recognized. Unfortunately, this is not actual, genuine recognition. Gender-X does not belie a nuanced, caring understanding of the plight of many people or take seriously their self-narratives. It deals with the problems by dumping those problems into a hollow new category. It provides a non-solution, which may be its most grievous and hazardous aspect.

The addition of Gender-X purports to deal with the issue; it kind of stands in the place of a solution: We don’t need to deal with transgenderism or intersexuality any more, because we added a third box. Chaz Bono has a third box, if Chaz Bono wants it, and so now Chaz Bono ought to quit bitching. Gender-X is to transgenderism and intersexuality what 40 acres and a mule was to slavery. Yes, we captured you, broke your spirit, treated you as property, and forced you to do our manual labor, but here’s a mule and some infertile land. We square? Well why aren’t we square? We gave you a fucking mule / non-descript gender category! God, there’s just no pleasing you people, is there?


Gender-X is what happens when we do not take seriously the real issues, the genuine problems, in our conceptions of sex and gender. We recognize that these reified binary categories of traits are problematic. We solve this problem of reified categorization by…reifying a new, third category.

My, aren’t we clever.

This all, of course, leaves aside the question which ought to have been nagging at you throughout this whole rant: Why the piss-fucking-hell do we need gender on a passport in the first place?


_J_ said...

I seem to have used the term "reify" to do quite a bit of work in the rant. If you don't know what that means, here's a handy introduction to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

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