It’s hard to talk about androgynous people. To clarify: this isn’t because of any social taboos or prejudice, but something more literal — people who don’t identify as male nor as female are actually difficult to discuss, because English doesn’t allow people to identify as gender neutral. All of our third-person pronouns are categorised by the male-female binary. People are either “he” or “she”. You can’t use “it” — it sounds dehumanising — and “they” can be grammatically awkward.
One way of getting around this is to adopt a new pronoun altogether. In March, Sydney-based Norrie (who has chosen to abandon the family name May-Welby) introduced many of us to “zie”, in place of “he” or “she”. Norrie — who began life as a male-to-female transsexual, before opting out of male-female distinctions — made headlines when the Sydney Morning Herald declared “hir” (not him, not her) the first person recognised by the state as neuter.
It took months for the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages to process the application, before finally granting Norrie a birth certificate with “sex not specified”. International news agencies hailed Norrie as the world’s first legally genderless person. For people from diverse sex and gender backgrounds, the decision was a significant win.
By the end of March, however, there was bad news. The NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages back-pedalled, phoning Norrie to say the birth certificate was now invalid. While Norrie proceeded to lodge a furious FOI request to unearth what deliberations led to that outcome, the verdict appears to be final. A NSW Registry spokesperson confirmed tonewmatilda.com that while people can change sex on their birth certificate, the only two options available are male to female, or female to male. “There is no other legal possibility,” she said. As far as NSW is concerned, every citizen is either a man or a woman.
Norrie’s case is politically sensitive — but it also raises questions about whether the NSWRegistry’s decision was about politics or practicalities. Norrie insists the revoked birth certificate is a political issue, since the practical aspects of registering as sex-not-specified are apparently straightforward. In the weeks when Norrie’s sex-not-specified birth certificate was still legal, Norrie approached banks and Centrelink to change records in person. “It’s hard over the phone,” Norrie told newmatilda.com. “They say, ‘Oh, it can’t be possible.’ But when I walk in there and they look at me, they can’t tell if I’m male or female. When I give them the piece of paper from the right government department saying, ‘This is what I am’, they think, ‘Okay. We can action that.’”
Sex-not-specified passports are also surprisingly easy to obtain in Australia — at least in theory. The Department of Foreign Affairs says that the Australian Passport Office has clear provisions for citizens to apply for passports as neither male nor female. That’s because the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) — which maintains worldwide passport standards — allows countries to have an unspecified sex option. In those cases, the symbol X (instead of M or F) is used. It’s up to individual countries whether they want to adopt that system or not.
There is a catch, of course. In order for an Australian to get a passport marked X, applicants need a birth certificate to demonstrate a “sex not specified” status or equivalent. The gatekeepers of those birth certificates are state or territory registries. If those registries refuse to release sex-not-specified birth certificates, no one from that state is able to get a passport marked X. Right now, Norrie’s passport says “female” and Norrie wants that changed.
While most Australian queer rights campaigners support and admire Norrie’s work, some transsexual, transgender and intersex people are also quietly wary of introducing a third sex category to official documents. Gina Wilson, president of intersex rights group OII Australia, told newmatilda.com that the majority of intersex people — people who are born with different or anomalous sex organs — prefer to identify as male or female, or as intersex woman or man. “When they ask ‘What is your sex?’ we usually say male or female,” Gina says. “We don’t want to have a fight at the motor registry branch. We don’t want to fight to get a passport. We don’t want to have a dispute going into a [public] toilet.”
Gina argues that introducing a third sex option opens up opportunities for further discrimination. “Two sexes have caused us trouble enough. Having a third option, to us, is like having ‘bastard’ or ‘coloured’ stamped on your birth certificate.” Norrie disagrees with this interpretation of the “sex not specified” category. Rather than being a third sex, Norrie says “sex not specified” is a commentary on the male-female binary. That is, if people are required to be either male or female in the system, then someone like Norrie cannot be “specified” by sex.
Semantics aside, both advocates agree on one fundamental thing: ultimately, all government records should abolish categorising people by sex altogether. “In the long term,” Norrie says, “I would prefer to get rid of categorisations. I’d like it not to be on my identity, the same way race is not on my identity.” Gina agrees. “Our ultimate aim,” she says, “is to not have sex categories on any documentation, save for maybe medical documentation.”
Needless to say, such an overhaul would be a hefty task, warranting an extremely well-funded campaign and tons of legislative paperwork. There is also the danger that in removing potentially discriminatory classifiers from official records — such as sex and race — more insidious forms of discrimination could paradoxically be introduced.
In France, for instance, a national stance against discrimination has produced government policies against discrimination. So far, so good — but this colour blindness means it’s illegal for the French government to collect information about anyone’s race. Many commentators have argued that because of this, racial discrimination against non-white French citizens thrives, since claims of colour blindness can be used as a shield to hide people’s prejudices.
In any case, any changes to legislation to remove sex as an identifier are a distant pipe dream. There are no international precedents for this kind of sweeping reform. Even everyday social reforms, like changing the way people talk about androgynous people, can seem impossible.
Roly Sussex, a professor of Applied Language Studies at the University of Queensland, says amending language — especially pronouns — can be difficult. “Changing pronouns is really, really tough,” he told newmatilda.com. “You’re not going to get language change unless either there is a top-down policy push, or a sufficiently large, vocal and politically engaged group in the community.” One good example, Sussex says, is the manner in which the feminist movement effectively stopped people from using “he” and “his” (“A student may attend if he wants”; “The person should submit his forms”) to refer to both men and women.
In newspaper reports, Norrie might have been quoted as preferring “zie”, but even Norrie admits it can be difficult using “zie” in everyday life. “Even I haven’t had much practice in it,” Norrie says, laughing. “We gender things. If we see a cat or a dog, we call it he or she, depending on whether we think dogs or cats are yin or yang.” Usually, Norrie opts for “they” or “them”, and doesn’t get offended if people don’t use “zie” or “hir”. “Heavens no,” Norrie says. “So long as they’re smiling! I’d rather identify as a human being, frankly.”