Gender politics: he, she or zie?
Last week, the Australian high court ruled that the sex of Norrie May-Welby was ‘non-specific’
Norrie, who identifies as a ‘spansexual’
Meet Norrie May-Welby - or simply ‘Norrie’ as zie (no, that’s not a typo: bear with me) is known to the Australian media - a Scottish-born, Sydney-dwelling artist and political activist with a penchant for big sunglasses and provocative cartoons.
Except in one sense: Norrie (born Bruce Norrie Watson) is neither male nor female, hence the playfully evasive adopted surname.
Last week, the high court of Australia ruled that the sex of May-Welby was “non-specific”.
Norrie is not the first Australian whose gender has been legally declared to be neither male nor female – previous cases include Tony Briffa, a former mayor of Hobsons Bay in Victoria. In fact, since 2011, Australians have been able to tick a box marked “X” in the space for gender on passport applications.
But what is different about Norrie’s case is that it wasn’t merely about gender – a concept understood since at least ancient Greek times to encompass some fluidity – it was about sex. Specifically, it was about whether sex can be legally be “non-specific”.
Norrie, who identifies as a “spansexual”, was born with male sexual organs. Zie (the preferred pronoun of many of her fellow spansexuals, although Norrie is okay with “she” and “her”) underwent gender-reassignment surgery at the age of 28, but subsequently decided that she wasn’t female, or even intersex.
In 2010, Norrie successfully obtained a birth cert recognising that the gender affirmation surgery had left her with a sex that was “non-specific”. Cue global headlines about the “world’s first genderless person”, and a minor, embarrassed flurry in the New South Wales births, deaths and marriages office, which led to the status being rescinded just four weeks later. Since then, Norrie has been locked in a legal battle to have that birth cert reissued. That the high court ruled in Norrie’s favour has obvious implications for the estimated one in 2,000 children born intersex (with indeterminate sexual organs) each year. Instead of being boxed into one gender or the other immediately after birth, those in Australia now have time to determine which gender, if either, fits.
In the short term, Norrie’s victory may not seem to mean much to the rest of us; but to those for whom it matters, it matters a great deal. Facebook recognised the need for genders beyond the binary when, earlier this year, in a fit of either empathy or advertising savvy, it introduced a total of 56 gender options, up to 10 of which can be used on any one profile.
But even for the rest of us, it raises valid questions in a society obsessed with gender and sexual identity.
“Do you know what you’re having?” is the first question a pregnant woman gets asked (and the one she is asked at least twice a day, every day, until it can be replaced by “What did you have?”). As they grow, children’s gender is expected to determine the clothes they wear, the toys they will play with, the sports they participate in, and even where they are educated and work. As adults, we are required to declare our gender on everything from car-insurance forms to bank-account applications. Sex has become a shorthand for much more than our chromosomal make-up; it’s the bluntest and most effective way we have of corralling one another into rigid stereotypes.
But if people such as Norrie force us to recognise sex as something more fluid – if we accept that, like sexuality, it might more accurately be said to exist on a spectrum – then such divisions begin to seem more meaningless than ever.