Recent developments in the politics of gender are raising deeper questions about the continuing relevance of gender itself. This week the Alberta government presented a new birth certificate to a twelve year-old girl-by-birth who began identifying as a boy at age nine. The ‘F’ indicating sex on the child’s certificate was changed to an ‘M’.
Alberta has become the first province to allow such a change for children, who are not eligible for sex reassignment surgery. Court cases in other provinces seem to signal forthcoming nationwide changes in gender identity policy.
As is often the case with complicated social issues, the conspicuous effects of the policy are less important than the subtle, but broader cultural shifts that will follow it.
That is to say, social conservatives are not concerned so much about an Alberta child’s birth certificate as they are about the continued cultural significance of the words “male” and “female”. These concerns are not ludicrous given the tremendous speed of social change in the recent past, and in light of recent media conversations about gender.
In April, Global News ran the headline, “Does gender no longer work on birth certificates?” A Saskatchewan mother of a six year-old transgendered girl noted that birth certificates once listed a child’s race and father’s occupation, and argued that gender designations were just as archaic.
The question is bigger than birth certificates, however. This week, Canadian media reported that the Vancouver School Board had directed its staff to use the pronouns “xe”, “xem” and “xyr” to refer to students of ambiguous sex, or who otherwise do not wish to be called “he” or “she”.
A National Post feature last month was titled “The end of gender? North American society may be ready for more shades in between male and female”. The article quoted a University of Melbourne professor who advocates the abolition of gender itself.
The exemplars in these progressive visions are the minority of individuals who are transgendered or androgynous in some way. But while there are exceptions in circumstance, might it be true in principle that humans are male and female? What would a genderless society mean for our collective human identity?
The denial of the male and female has to be understood in the context of a broader trend: modernity’s tendency to abstract away from human reality for the sake of simplicity and inclusiveness. The last four hundred years have seen the effacement of man’s identity as a spiritual being, as a familial being, and even as a monogamous, heterogamous, or fruitful one. People have become “individuals”, conceived of as intellectual and physical agents and little else.
In the twenty-first century, by abstracting with even more boldness than before, we are at risk of inventing an epicene anthropology, a de-gendered image of humanity in which very few people are made.
The beauty of our civilizational self-portrait has given way to something more schematic, an image that contains no errors but misses the likeness of its subject. Which is more important—that our collective imagination of human identity (symbolized, perhaps, by a birth certificate) is broad enough to include every permutation of individual identity, or that it is deep enough to capture the essence of humanity itself?