In an important victory for transgender and intersex activists, Australian passports will now be issued in three sexes – male, female, and an indeterminate X. The Australian passport office Thursday issued new regulations concerning the sex and gender diverse community, which have caught the eye of the world with the new “X” marker. Though much of the international media coverage has confused the two, the new regime is made up of two separate options, with two different justifications.
The first is for transgender men and women who have undergone hormone therapy but not surgery. The previous regime had required genital surgery in order to access the correct sex marker, a procedure that is not always medically possible, and can involve a years-long wait on Australia’s Medicare system or expensive out-of-country travel to medical tourist destinations like Thailand. Transgender people will now be able to have the correct sex marker matching the sex they live in (ie an M for a transgender man, an F for a transgender woman) with a letter from their doctors certifying they are undergoing “appropriate medical treatment” for their preferred gender.
Australia’s Attorney General Robert McClelland said in a statement that,
Most people take for granted the ability to travel freely and without fear of discrimination. This measure will extend the same freedoms to sex and gender diverse Australians. While it’s expected this change will only affect a handful of Australians, it’s an important step in removing discrimination for sex and gender diverse people.
The new regulations are designed to allow transgender Australians to travel safely without being outed as transgender by mismatching documents (that is, a male M for a transgender woman, a female F for a transgender man). This follows the recommendation of Australia’s Human Rights Commission in their “Sex Files” paper in 2009, which stated that “the definition of sex affirmation treatment should be broadened so that surgery is not the only criteria for a change in legal sex.” Similar policies have recently been made in the United States and United Kingdom which move past the surgery standard for sex marker changes.
Interestingly however, the second change to passport regulations, which concerns intersex Australians, has a very different justification. With certification of their condition from a doctor, intersex people will be able to have an “X” for indeterminate sex marker on their passports. Though it may work as an explanatory device in some situations, depending on appearance, it also potentially exposes intersex people to confusion or even outright discrimination. An “unspecified” sex marker is definitely something Customs and Immigrations officers might see as odd or suspicious.
The chief justification, therefore, seems to in this case be primarily about confirmation of identity rather than safety, about confirming that some intersex people’s bodies and identifies do not fall into a neat “M” or “F” box. There has been a growing movement of people considering themselves a third sex or gender, in Australia and elsewhere, with other non-binary options like genderqueer and neutrosis emerging as new identity groups. For now, however, the Australian policy only covers intersex people with a verifiable medical sex variation.
What has been notable about the coverage of this story, though, is the confusion between the two groups and the institutional policy governing each. The creation of a new sex category on passports is indeed newsworthy, however, newspapers have conflated the two groups. An AFP wire piece on the story has spread worldwide, using various version of the same misleading headline. Britain’s Daily Telegraph declares “X marks the spot for transgendered Australians”), the Times of India “Australian passports allows transgender ‘x’ option,” while the Vancouver Sun states “Australia passports introduce transgender X option.” This is, to be clear, false: transgender people will not be able to access the X, it is strictly for intersex people.
But the mistake is telling. In her landmark book Whipping Girl, writer Julia Serano discusses the cultural tendency towards “third gendering” – the idea that transsexual/transgender men and women are not their sexes but rather a third, different sex from men and women. Calling a transsexual woman like Serano a third gender, she argues, “completely negates the fact that I identify and live as a woman.” She argues this stems from the fact that Western cultures are organised by what she calls cissexism, “the idea that transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals (ie people who are not transsexual).” The confusing coverage glossing transgender men and women as a third “X” sex is a clear instance of cissexism.
There is still much work to do, therefore, legally and culturally. The new Australian regulations remove Federal discrimination, though Australia’s patchwork of laws governing birth certificate changes. Australian transgender advocates will continue their fight for less restrictive state sex marker laws. In Western Australia, two transgender men have been fighting the State government to obtain male birth certificates without undergoing surgery for several years now.
But more broadly, transgender advocates and their allies will need to continue the tricky work of untangling the knot of cissexist assumptions that creates such confusing, inaccurate journalism. Serano notes that it is “crucial to make a distinction between those who identify themselves as belonging to a third gender and those who actively third-gender other people.” Some intersex people consider themselves to be men and women with a medical condition, others consider themselves to be a third gender. Most transgender people consider themselves to be men or women, others a third (or fourth, or non) gender. All should be respected.
To get the basic facts right on sex and gender diverse populations is not especially difficult. The news media can and should do better than this.