Friday, November 10, 2006

Gender Identity Proposal in NYC

As astute readers of my blog know, I have a strong interest in gender and gender related issues and a recent proposal in New York City, reported in the New York Times recently caught my eye. The proposal would allow people born in NYC to formally switch their gender on their birth records without having gone through the usual requirements of sexual reassignment surgery.

The article states:

Under the rule being considered by the city’s Board of Health, which is likely to be adopted soon, people born in the city would be able to change the documented sex on their birth certificates by providing affidavits from a doctor and a mental health professional laying out why their patients should be considered members of the opposite sex, and asserting that their proposed change would be permanent.

Usually a person must have gone through a process of transitioning to the other sex for a period of time and then have had or be close to having sexual reassignment surgery, or at least be on hormones. Indeed there is a whole standard of care called the Benjamin Standard of Care (also see this summary) lays out a sequence of hoops through which transgendered individuals should go through as part of the transitioning process.

This proposal eliminates the need for any sort of physiological change requiring only that the person have done a name change and provide evidence that they have lived as a member of their chosen gender for at least two years.

Again from the article:
The move to ease the requirements for altering one’s gender identity comes after New York has adopted other measures aimed at blurring the lines of gender identification. For instance, a new shelter policy approved in January now allows beds to be distributed according to appearance, applying equally to postoperative transsexuals, cross-dressers and “persons perceived to be androgynous.”

You might think that this sort of proposal would enjoy broad support in the transgender community, but a transsexual friend of mine, "Sue" wrote to a group that we both belong to that she thought this proposal was a bad idea because:

This is fine for the Transgender/Queer movement to want. What these
groups must understand is that they don't have a lot of support in
the population in general. Nor will they gain a lot of support by
trying to tie their agenda to the needs of transsexual persons in
transition and of intersex people.

Where the latter have a legitimate, medically recognized, condition
the former have a lifestyle. This is a huge difference.
"Sue" wrote that comment in response to another poster who noted that the transgender/queer community is moving beyond the binary notion of gender.

In another post "Sue" says:

A person is non-op for one simple reason. That reason is because they
chose to be non-op. The others fall into a surgery-tracked group that
I have come to think of as "Not Yet OP" for lack of a better term.

Don't yet have the money? NYO. Obligation to family is a priority to
your doing it? NYO. Medical condition that science has not yet found
a way to handle? NYO. Boyfriend took your money (Again?)? NYO.

The others are fetishist transgenders.

This was in response to a comment that a transgender person may not want to have sexual reassignment surgery for a number of reasons. Sue also feels that this proposal as written would link those who have gone through SRS or legitimate reasons not to transition but are planning to with gender benders and (gasp) fetishist transgenders. Now to be fair, she seems to have nothing against gender benders and others who see themselves perhaps as gender out laws but her rhetoric seems a bit extreme to me.

From my way of thinking, Sue forgets that transgendered, even narrowly defined to be those who are transsexual are not well accepted by society at large and treated as disordered. Changing one's gender assignment is a serious step and it is entirely possible that people for whom the proposal is not designed might slip through and Sue is right to raise questions about implementationtion. But can't this be done without such fearful sounding rhetoric?

To my non transgender readers this whole thing probably seems very strange and maybe trivial. But think-if gender and gender identity is so unimportant than why do people spend so much time acculturating our kids to the "appropriate" gender and why do people get bent out of shape when they encounter someone who doesn't quite fit their preconception of gender? Why is that? It's precisely because gender and social signals related to gender are important to our social biology, so people who don't seem to fit make others uncomfortable.

The flip side of course is that someone who is transgendered and who does not fit well with their socially assigned gender is often highly uncomfortable in "normal" society and uncomfortable with the discordence between their appearence and gender identity. Hence the expense and risk of hormones and surgery and hence the fear "Sue" seems to feel that the NYC proposal might create a backlash that could affect her as a transsexual just at the time when society is beginning to accept her.

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