Friday, April 25, 2014

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Gender – three and counting

Over the past month, there have been two notable legal developments in the way gender is defined in law, one in India and one in Australia. 

To sum these up, the first involved the recognition of the hijra, most of whom are biologically male but with the apparel and deportment of women, as a distinct ‘third gender’; the second involved a transsexual (‘Norrie’) who did not complete the gender reassignment journey and won the right to be officially recognised as having no specified gender.
The Indian case seems fairly straightforward: the hijra are regarded as representing a third category within the genus ‘Gender’. Many are biological males, but some are intersex and some are eunuchs; as a distinct class of person, they have occupied a cultural niche in Indian (also in Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepali) society for centuries. They regard themselves as being neither male nor female but simply as hijra. They will now be officially regarded as a disadvantaged minority eligible for affirmative action measures, and civic authorities will have to ensure the provision of separate facilities such as public restrooms for them.

All this is difficult to come to terms with for someone mired in the traditional view of sex/gender as a binary classification, which is to say a system based on the existence of two – and only two – discrete entities. Most of us are indeed born either male or female and remain it for life. But it has long been acknowledged that the binary system doesn’t always apply. Focusing on the purely biological aspect of gender for a moment, genetic anomalies and morphogenetic hiccoughs bring about people who do not fit neatly into one of the two members of the binary set. The standard response is to try to align them as babies, children or adolescents with one of the two sexes, such as through corrective surgery to address ambiguous sex organs, or hormonal therapy to bring out secondary sexual characteristics. It’s usually fairly obvious what the underlying sex is, but not invariably so, and problems can arise with what may be an arbitrary decision as to which way to go.

However, we have long moved away from viewing gender as being merely a matter of biological sex. There has always been that ‘third group’ to test the dichotomy. The binary system has generally remained intact by regarding them as ‘in-betweens’ in a ‘grey zone’ between male and female. But if we abandon this convenient halfway-house model, the binary gender classification system comes tumbling down as a third category is now added to the genus.  The wind seems to be blowing strongly in that direction, with a variety of people who for biological and/or non-biological reasons do not fit into the binary scheme increasingly being assigned by social scientists to a ‘third gender’ category.

This is where the Australian case has me a bit puzzled. Looking at newspaper reports of the case, I see the terms ‘third gender’, ‘non-specified gender’, ‘gender-neutral’ and ‘no gender’ being bandied about. The Australian Passport Office says on its website that “A passport may be issued to sex and gender diverse applicants in M (male), F (female) or X (indeterminate/unspecified/intersex)”. Now add to that ‘Norrie’s’ ‘non-specific gender status’. These terms are not synonymous. ‘Indeterminate’, ‘non-specified/unspecified’ and ‘intersex’ are consistent with the binary model whereby someone is necessarily located on the male-female spectrum, although we’re not sure exactly where. ‘Third gender’ means being within the genus ‘Gender’ but not on any M-F continuum. ‘No gender’ and ‘gender-neutral’ connote being completely outside the genus ‘Gender’. Currently, the expression ‘third gender’ seems to be an umbrella term for a whole hotchpotch of gender statuses. If we are to make sense of it all, we – including journalists – will have to do a lot better than that.

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in marriage law. Does one need to have a gender to marry? Is a ‘third gender’ person who is biologically male covered by same-sex marriage law if she wants to marry a man? And so on. A bit of tweaking of existing statutes is likely to be required. 

Now that we have a ‘third gender’, is that the end of the matter? Wikipedia portentously notes that some social scientists are talking about there being four, five or even more genders. This could all get rather complicated. For one thing, we ran out of pronouns with the binary set’s ‘he’ and ‘she’, although it will be noted that by far the majority of ‘third gender’ and ‘no gender’ people use ‘she’. Is ‘she’ to become a universal pronoun for all but us beleaguered alpha males?

All right, I’m starting to get facetious now, so it’s time to wind this up. I do actually take this issue seriously – I was myself born a bloke and will die a bloke and have decided that I might as well be a bloke in between, but I also realise that it’s not quite so straightforward for some people. Whatever one’s gender status (or non-gender status, or gender non-status), let’s please retain a sense of humour while we’re trying to wrap our heads around it all................

Question on Australian official form 25 years from now
Please indicate the gender you identify with. If you are in transition, indicate the gender you are being assigned to. Note that the final response option listed will be entered by default if you do not answer, or if you select more than one box.

a bit of both sheila and bloke
third, fourth, fifth or subsequent gender (please specify: ____________)
composite gender other than sheila/bloke (please specify between what and what: ________/_________)
 I haven’t yet decided what my gender is (optional: indicate which ones you are deciding between)
I think I have a gender but I don’t know what it is
I know my gender but I’m not telling
I don’t have a gender and don’t want one
I don’t understand the question

Barend Vlaardingerbroek is at the American University of Beirut and is a regular contributor to ‘Breaking Views’ on geopolitical and social issues. Feedback welcome at

1 comment:

paul scott said...

utterly and completely absurd