When we are asked to check a sex-identity box on a bureaucratic form, what definition of sex is being invoked and to what end?
By the 20th week into a pregnancy, an ultrasound scan can be used to determine a baby’s sex and parents are given the option of learning this information, or waiting to hear ‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’ At birth, the delivering physician or midwife visually confirms and records the previewed sex identity on a birth certificate application form. Our governments have some good reasons for collecting and keeping sex identity information about us in the aggregate for the purposes of demographic studies, public health and affirmative-action measures. But the sex markers on state-issued birth certificates are not necessary for these goals. In fact, a government has no business collecting information about our personal sex identities at birth, or keeping track of the decisions we might make about our sex identities over the course of our lifetimes.
To protect the right of gender self-determination, we should remove sex markers from birth certificates before they become the basis for sex discrimination. Consider North Carolina’s 2016 ‘bathroom bill’, which required people to use the restroom that matched their ‘biological sex’ – the one noted on a birth certificate – in public schools and state agencies. Defenders of this and other ‘bathroom bills’ cite privacy and safety concerns that are tied to the false stereotype that transgender women are really heterosexual men who don dresses to enter female-designated public restrooms, and sexually assault girls and women. Critics of the law see it as state-sponsored gender identity discrimination.
Getting rid of sex markers on birth certificates is rooted in the liberal philosophical concept of self-determination and, in particular, the precept that the state should not restrict our free expression and speech.
We are partway there. The majority of US states permits transgender people to change the sex marker on their birth certificate. The transgender civil rights movement has long focused on assimilating and accommodating transgender people within the existing sex binary of male or female. These reforms help some transgender people, but not everyone can or wishes to be defined by these norms. Assimilation and accommodation leave intact the primary source of sex-identity discrimination: bureaucratic sex-classification itself.
The policy reform of allowing transgender people to ‘correct’ the sex markers on birth certificates also doesn’t guarantee its enforcement. Stephanie Mott’s story is a case in point. Mott, a transgender woman, is suing the state of Kansas for failing to enforce a law that explicitly allows transgender people to change the sex markers on their birth certificates. ‘I shouldn’t have to out myself as transgender every time I apply for a job or when I register to vote,’ Mott said.
The act of correction is also problematic because it implies some sort of mistake. In his beautiful memoir What Becomes You (2008), co-written with his mother Hilda Raz, Aaron Raz Link, a self-described white female-to-male transsexual, historian of science and professional clown, challenges the persistent stereotype that transgender people are ‘trapped in the wrong body’, and acquire a ‘new body’ via surgery and hormones. He begins the story of his transition with the inevitable mutability of all human bodies over time:
Like everyone else, I have had the same body since the day I was born. Approximately every seven years, most of my cells, like yours, have been replaced by new cells. I am trapped within my body only as little and as much as every other human being. To believe otherwise is to deny a miracle; I have changed and there is only one of me.
For Link, who does not speak for all transgender people, the idea of correction rings false.
Another approach to transgender inclusion is to add more sex-identity categories beyond male and female. In 2013, Australia passed legislation that added a third sex marker option of ‘X’ in addition to ‘M’ or ‘F’ to its passports. According to Australian law, X represents ‘indeterminate, intersex (born with anatomy for both sexes) or unspecified’ and is available only to those born with intersex conditions or transgender Australians who can produce a ‘letter of support’ from a physician. Bangladesh added a similar third sex-marker option of ‘other’ to its passports in 2013, and India passed legislation in 2005 that added a third sex marker option of ‘E’, which stands for eunuch. In 2013, Germany gave intersex, but not transgender, adults the third option of ‘X’ on both their passports and their birth certificates. Germany’s law also gives the parents of intersex infants the option of leaving the sex designation on their children’s birth certificate blank.
Some might embrace a third sex-marker option, but others could feel stigmatised by the additive accommodation. After all, efforts to extend government sex-classification through creation of exceptional categories could end up reinforcing the binary poles of ‘man’ or ‘woman’, leaving people who identify as non-binary out in the cold.
When we are asked to check a sex-identity box on a bureaucratic form, what definition of sex is being invoked and to what end? Is sex being used as a proxy for the look and functionality of our genitals? Is it a proxy for the mix of hormones we have in our bloodstream? Is sex a proxy for the social experiences we’ve had because we are perceived as male or female? How does intersex or transgender experience affect such questioning?
The census conducted by the federal government would be a good way of capturing relevant demographic sex-identity data because it is a voluntary questionnaire that recurs every 10 years. On this self-reporting form, the federal government has a plum opportunity to clearly explain to respondents what definition of sex or gender they are being asked to voluntarily disclose and why. The racial identity questions on the census have been contested and changed over time. Perhaps it is time for the government to critically assess its use of sex classification not just on birth certificates but on the census as well.
When it comes to sex-based affirmative action, I agree with the philosopher Laurie Shrage at Florida International University that ‘the state only needs to track a person’s lived sex, which can be verified by each individual’. Employers wishing to recruit and retain female employees are justifiably interested in knowing people’s current sex identity, not the sex identity they were assigned at birth based upon genital inspection. Indeed, unless a person’s genitals are directly relevant to a given job description, as in certain kinds of sex work such as pornography, then the disclosure of such information is irrelevant to hiring and promotion, and a violation of our right to privacy. These are important questions for organisations and institutions to grapple with, and to explicitly articulate as they design their recruitment, retention and administrative policies. Removing sex markers from birth certificates is a small but powerful way to force government, businesses and schools to align their sex-related administrative policies and practices with particular justifiable sex-related goals.
Heath Fogg Davis
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
A recent DNA analysis shows that a skeleton found in a famous Viking grace belonged to a female warrior.
The site of Birka, a Viking-era city whose remains lie about 20 miles east of Stockholm, has long been a treasure trove for scholars and archaeologists. Buried here are more than 3,000 Viking graves, all under what was once a central outpost in a complex trading network built during the Early Middle Ages. In the 10th century, for reasons researchers don't fully understand, it was abandoned
Nearly a millennium later, archaeologists unearthed, as one put it, the “ultimate Viking grave.” It contained the remains of a person buried alongside a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows, a knife, and shields, along with two horses, a mare, and a stallion. The skeleton held a board game, which were used then for devising military strategies. This person, by all accounts, had been a military officer.
Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of grave Bj 581 by excavator Hjalmar Stolpe
Scholars have long assumed this Viking officer had been male. However, a new paper published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology proposes convincing DNA evidence that this famed Viking skeleton was, in fact, a woman.
“Written sources mention female warriors occasionally, but this is the first time that we’ve really found convincing archaeological evidence for their existence,” says Neil Price, Professor at Uppsala University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient History.
The skeleton had fascinated Anna Kjellström, an osteologist at Stockholm University and coauthor of the paper, when she studied it a few years ago for another project, according to The Local. She noticed its slim cheekbones, feminine hips. It seemed female.
Map showing location of Birka and the grave site
In order to conclusively determine the sex of the warrior, the researchers tested the nuclear DNA of a tooth root and arm bone from the skeleton. The results? Two X chromosomes, zero Y chromosomes.
“The individual in grave BJ581 is the first confirmed female high-ranking Viking warrior,” wrote lead study author Hedenstierna-Jonson and colleagues.
Video footage of a recreation of Birka from filmmakers Mikael Agaton and Lars Rengfelt
So, the deceased was clearly female. But why do the researchers think she was a warrior and not, say, the wife of a warrior or simply a woman from high-ranking family? After all, the researchers note that Viking women buried alongside weapons have been discovered before.
It comes down to the board game, which she was clutching in her final resting position.
“The gaming set indicates that she was an officer, someone who worked with tactics and strategy and could lead troops in battle. What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military leader, that happens to have been a woman,” said Hedenstierna-Jonson.
Hedenstierna-Jonson elaborated in an interview with The Local:
“You can’t reach such a high (military) position without having warrior experience, so it’s reasonable to believe that she took part in battles.
It was probably quite unusual (for a woman to be a military leader), but in this case, it probably had more to do with her role in society and the family she was from, and that carrying more importance than her gender.”
The researchers don't believe their findings will revolutionize the way scholars conceptualize Viking military history. However, the paper raises new questions about the exact role of women in Viking society, and casts some doubt on previously unearthed Viking remains that were assumed to be male.
The paper concludes with a fitting war poem:
There's an app that detects manterruptions—but we round up the research to find out which groups of people are really doing the most interrupting.
Introducing our word of the day – “manterruption”. It’s a pretty self-explanatory term, describing a behavior when men interrupt women unnecessarily, which leads to a pretty serious imbalance in the amount of female vs. male contributions in a conversation.
The phenomenon of women’s voices being heard less for one reason or another has been studied and discussed. Indeed, early studies "seem to indicate a larger tendency on the part of men to interrupt in cross-sex conversations." Men also tend to talk more readily than women. A 2004 study on gender issues at Harvard Law School found that men were 50% more likely than women to volunteer at least one comment during class and 144% more likely to volunteer three or more comments.
Another study from Brigham Young University and Princeton found that during board meetings men dominate 75% of the conversation, which as a consequence leaves decision-making mostly to men. Interestingly, when the researchers instructed the participants in the study to decide by a unanimous vote, the time inequality disappeared and more importantly the group arrived at different decisions. Meaning, women’s voices bring a different and valuable perspective in a conversation and should be heard more.
To raise awareness about this issue, a Brazilian ad agency created the Woman Interrupted APP. The app tracks the amount of times a woman is being interrupted by men during a conversation. It uses the mic on the phone to analyze the conversation (without recording it) and based on female and male voice frequencies as well as personal voice calibration, it creates a graph of interruptions, including the time that they happened. Furthermore, daily, weekly and monthly statistics can be produced.
The app launched on International Women’s Day together with a beautiful collection of posters from artists around the world, who created them to promote the fight against manterruption.
Here's the thing, though: while fighting for the cause of hearing the female perspective equally in all matters of business, government, and life is definitely worthwhile, blaming it all on interrupting men doesn’t seem fair. Because it is not just men who interrupt women, women do it too. As a matter of fact, a study done in a tech company showed that 87% of the time that women interrupt, they are interrupting other women.
There are also other dynamics at play, for example, seniority. It is still more likely that men will hold a more senior position in a professional environment and, generally, people with a higher rank tend to interrupt more and be interrupted less. In that same study, it turned out that when women hold more senior positions they also tend to interrupt more men and women.
Hearing the voices and perspectives of both genders equally is incredibly important, but we should make sure we are addressing the right root causes and are not antagonizing those who need to be on the same side for progress to be made.
Photos: Woman Interrupted App