Tuesday, March 29, 2011

News Flash Two: Life Without Gender

            In 2010, Norrie May-Welby was registered as the world’s first legally genderless individual.  An Australian, she was registered by the New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages as neither male nor female.  The certificate she was issued is a type of identification used by the government to mark a sex change.  With public awareness however the registry soon backtracked explaining that they are not authorized to issue a certificate that marks anything other than male or female.  May-Welby promptly filed an appeal with the Australian Human Rights Commission.  Although the certificate did not remain genderless, the event has still spurred much debate regarding how we define gender and how we consider it politically.  May-Welby raised public awareness about variations in gender that do not fall under the currently accepted binary system.  Even though she was not completely victorious she has spurred much conversation about gender and whether we need to rethink its construction in our society.  Globally there are people who identify as either “gender neutral” or “gender variant”.  More recently attention has been given to these individuals and the scientific research surrounding gender.  Furthermore, cultures around the world historically and presently demonstrate examples of people who do not identify with being male or female.  In some societies these people are accepted as “normal” whereas other societies consider these people to be “abnormal” or “variants”.  The article emphasizes the need to readjust our thinking about gender and what is actually normal.  Thus, I believe that the media attention given to May-Welby may promote the idea that a binary gender system is constructed by society and thus we need to rethink our concept of gender to create a more encompassing system.
            Gender and sex are two very separate terms that are often used interchangeably in our society.  Sex refers to a biological construct that is physiologically determined and characterized by anatomy and physical attributes.  On the other hand, gender is non-biological and constructed by cultural ideals and constructs.  Although we often assume that gender is natural it is actually something that we have created as a society.  In other words, as a social construction, gender is derived from our culture rather than our genetics.  As Anne Fausto-Sterling stresses in Sexing the Body, “what we call ‘facts’ about the living world are not universal truths. Rather as Haraway writes they ‘are rooted in specific histories, practices, languages and peoples,’” (Fausto-Sterling, 7). Thus, gender is determined by our ideas, behaviors and expectations.  One’s physical appearance and genetics do not always correlate to their gender identity.  There are psychological aspects and cultural factors that also play important roles.  The concept of gender is not as straightforward as many people expect.  When deciding how we organize gender politically and socially we must take into account those people that do not identify as male or female.  Like May-Welby, there are individuals who do not fit into this binary system yet still must be accounted for.  Society first must understand that there are gender differences and then accept this variability as natural. 
            Primarily, I believe that this article is a small yet important victory for gender.  It definitely caught the attention of many people globally and in doing so raised awareness about gender differences, which do not only include male and female.  Therefore, I would consider the situation to be a victory for “gender neutral” and “gender variant” individuals.  Although May-Welby did not gain the gender certification that she desired, she did bring the issue to the forefront.  It emphasizes the shifting view from binary classification schemes to more a encompassing continuum.  A continuum view, which the article explains has already become more common among psychologists and researchers, acknowledges other possible gender identifications.  Fausto-Sterling also argues for a sexual continuum explaining that biologically our bodies are not only male or female; instead we have culturally constructed this concept of only two genders.  Thinking of gender in this non-traditional way works to expand our ideas on what gender is.  Some consider this view to be a type of protest as is does counter many societal norms and expectations.  Clearly, the idea of a continuum goes against traditional ideas on gender and how people are identified.  Still, it is necessary to question societal beliefs and re-evaluate how we think.  Critical thinking of how we identify individuals is essential for an inclusive perspective on gender.  Therefore, the article is a first step in raising awareness about a continuum rather than a binary classification scheme for gender.
            Fausto-Sterling further emphasizes this view, explaining intersex conditions.  These are many sex abnormalities that can occur.  People with intersex conditions do not fit into a male or female category.  Individuals born with these conditions often immediately undergo surgical procedures, demonstrating how deeply embedded this two-gendered system is in today’s society.  A shift in the way that we understand intersex conditions, gender neutral and gender variant individuals could yield a more inclusive system of gender.  Fausto-Sterling explains, “the way we traditionally conceptualize gender and sexual identity narrows life’s possibilities while perpetuating gender inequality” (Fausto-Sterling, 8).  Therefore, to better encompass all genders, a new continuum-like system is required in place of our current binary classification.
            The article also introduces examples of cultural differences in understanding gender.  For instance, in India the hijra are accepted as biological males who dress as women and identify as genderless.  These individuals do not fit into the accepted binary system, which dominates the United States, yet their society is more accepting of people who do not fit into this strict classification.  This example stresses that our view of gender is biased; it depends on beliefs and norms rather than actual physiology. 
            Rethinking our gender system is an uncomfortable conversation for many Americans.  The female-male based system that is widely accepted in the U.S. seems to organize life.  Everything from bathrooms, to dormitory rooms to societal roles are structured according to whether one is male or female.  When a person’s gender is unknown one is often uneasy and does not necessarily know how to act towards that individual.  Our mental perception of one’s gender is so deeply ingrained in our society and cultural views.  It is difficult not to identify people as male or female because that is one of the first distinctions that we often make and accordingly base our behavior off of.  Still, by recognizing that gender is a social construction and does not accurately reflect one’s actual identity, it is apparent that we need to change our language and how we think of gender.
            Overall the construction of gender is deeply woven into our society.  We are taught from a young age that we are either male or female.  Our toys, clothing, treatment and behavior reflect that distinction.  Thus, gender is a biased social construction.  Intersex individuals and other people who identify as gender neutral or gender variant are excluded from this system.  We need to face reality and better classify individuals based on gender.  Therefore, a two-gendered system is insufficient and should be replaced by a continuum perspective of gender.  Individuals like May-Welby emphasize the need for this change and shed light on the improper system that we currently accept.  


Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Kantrowitz, Barbara & Wingert, Pat. “Are We Facing a Genderless Future?”. Newsweek 16 Aug. 2010.    < http://www.newsweek.com/2010/08/16/life-without-gender.html>.

1 comment:

  1. I had not heard about this event before reading your News Flash...this is so interesting! Fausto-Sterling would certainly be happy about this event. She believes that gender should exist on more of a continuum (as you discussed in your post), and that having only 2 genders in our society is not sufficient for people like May-Welby. I agree that this event can be seen as an important step in the right direction...although, one thing worries me. I'm afraid that this has been portrayed in the media as just a "novelty" and something strange and out-of-the-ordinary. I know that change has to start somewhere, but the way that the article that you linked to is written makes me worry that this event was portrayed in the media because they knew that people would read the article, just because it is so novel. However, I hope that this is not the case. Hopefully this event will encourage others who feel that they do not fit into the two gender categories to come forward and fight for a more continuous gender spectrum.