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What if:...we scrapped the gender binary on official documents?

Gender

Many, probably most, of us don’t give a second thought about how often we are asked to declare whether we are male or female. To travel abroad, to open a bank account, to access healthcare, apply for a job, even just to buy stuff online.

At the same time, science tells us that our biology is complex. That our hormones, chromosomes, genitals and mind do not necessarily combine to make us exclusively male or female. This crude dualism is overwhelmingly a social and cultural construct – with roots in patriarchy and capitalism – that does not capture the complexity of real lives.

Does it matter that gender persists as binary legal categories required on official documents? It certainly does for people who can’t, in all honesty, mark the male or the female box. If you can’t tick, you don’t officially exist.

British activist Christie Elan Cane has been fighting for 25 years to achieve legal and social recognition for non-gendered identity. In June 2018 they brought a High Court case for gender-neutral passports, calling for an X option on the application form for those who did not identify as either M or F.

The UK Home Office argued that the current policy was necessary for ‘security’. The judge agreed and the case was lost.

Not all countries see gender diversity as a security threat. In December, Germany adopted a new law allowing people to legally identify as ‘intersex’ on official documents. Similar laws in Australia, New Zealand/Aotearoa, Malta, India and Canada recognize intersex or ‘third gender’ people, who according to the UN account for around 1.7 per cent of the world’s population.

Germany’s new law is limited to intersex people biologically certified by a doctor. Many would have liked it to go further, allowing for people who are trans, non-binary, agender or who just object to the gender binary.

So do we need official recognition of more non-binary genders? Or should we just drop binary gender as the routine official and compulsory legal category? What difference would it make if genders became optional social identities rather than rigid legal categories imposed at birth?

It would impact on family law. People would marry. People would have children. No need to say if they were in a same-sex or opposite-sex relationship. It wouldn’t matter, legally. And it would reduce gendered pressures on children’s development.

Dropping gender as a legal category would prompt us to question the logic of gender divisions which are currently just assumed as normal – for example in male and female prisons. People have a right to be protected from those who are violent or sexually abusive, regardless of their gender. In sport, the Paralympics have taught us that there are many ways of making sure that like competes with like. Yet the International Association of Athletics Federation remains focused on gender classifications rather than other forms of competitive advantage.

What would we gain from a less binarized perspective? A kinder, more realistic and inclusive approach to humanity, for a start; one that allows people to be and grow into what they are, honestly expressing their sexuality or their gender identity, however varied, conventional or unconventional.

Non-binary writer and musician CN Lester notes in Trans Like Me: ‘I’m not sure how much longer it will take for people outside the gender binary to be considered legitimate... What I am sure of, though, is that accepting people outside of the gender binary has less to do with the idea of non-binary genders, and a lot more to do with working away from binary thinking in general. That we get better at seeing beyond us and them, valid and invalid, natural and unnatural, good and bad, and communicate instead the fullness of who we are to each other, respectfully, with compassion. When we are surrounded by such diversity – in nature, in culture, in human spirit – how can we stand not to acknowledge it?’

Forget the binary boxes. How about H for human?

New Internationalist issue 518 magazine cover This article is from the March-April 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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