The Technology of Gender

This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.

According to an article from the, an Australian Court of Appeal has handed down a decision that transgender men are not legally men:

In a summary of the 63-page judgment, the court said Chief Justice Martin and Justice Pullin took the view that the essential question was whether the physical characteristics of the two transsexuals, including their internal and external genitalia, would identify them as a member of the male gender.

“In their (the majority) view, because each individual possessed none of the genital and reproductive physical characteristics of a male, and retained nearly all of the normal external genital characteristics and the internal reproductive organs of a female, they would not be identified as males by reference to community standards, despite the existence of some secondary male physical characteristics,” the summary said.

This is a bizarre decision because it’s actually pretty rare that anyone assesses someone’s gender by looking in their pants, at least in day-to-day life. I have to wonder what “community standards” means if you have to check out someone’s genitals in order to know which pronoun to use. At least, that’s not how we do it in my community.

But what this decision suggests is that gender is a technological issue, more than anything else. Currently, it’s much easier to remove a penis and surgically create a vagina than the reverse. But that may change someday.

This has long been a topic for science fiction. In John Varley’s Eight Worlds stories, people can switch back and forth, stay somewhere in the middle, or remove their sexual organs entirely, and it’s all a matter of nanobot surgery. In Iain Bank’s Culture novels and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, people can do the same thing, simply through an act of conscious decision. Of course, these are all fiction, but they do make the point that basing gender assignment on what organs someone has is a matter of technology.

That seems especially ironic to me because the foundation of the court’s decision sounds like gender essentialism, but it’s actually a tech issue. Is it reasonable to say that someone isn’t male simply because we currently lack the ability to surgically create a penis? If these men could travel into the future and have such a procedure done and then come back to 2010, would they be men? And if so, then how can we say that they aren’t now? It’s not as if masculinity is something that can be implanted by a surgeon.

I don’t know enough about the legal process in Australia to know if it’s possible, but I really hope that this decision is overturned. It doesn’t make sense, it’s not realistic, and it’s not fair to transgender men.

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