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Identity II: who identifies what?

  • Posted on September 13, 2015 at 3:02 pm

Just as I was about to get deeply philosophical and go through my list from last blog from the beginning, up popped a reminder about gender identity; legal gender identity. Ashley Reed set up a petition to the UK Parliament: ‘Allow transgender people to self-define their legal gender’. Within a few days the signatories numbered over 30,000, so a response was required. The Ministry of Justice posted their statement at 1 am on a Saturday morning. I hope it meant ‘please could you post our agreed statement before you go home, don’t worry about the overtime’, rather than: ‘could you do the usual before you go to bed?’. If 100,000 people sign before 22 January 2016, the petition goes on the list for possible debate.

Please do read the government response, because several phrases are very telling, revealing significant misunderstanding of what it is to be transgender. Obtaining legal recognition of one’s gender is, for example, ‘entirely a personal decision’ (like it does’t matter to have a correct legal status); gender is ‘acquired’ (like everyone chooses a lifestyle); ‘non-binary gender is not recognised in UK law’ (like it does not exist); and whilst there are ‘important legal and social consequences’ in one’s legal gender’, for non-binary people’s absence of a legal gender identity: ‘We are not aware that that results in any specific detriment’. It isn’t just out of touch, it is ignorant.

Our UK Ministry of Justice is exhibiting real lack of justice towards everyone who does not conform to a highly restrictive and fallacious definition of gender. The distress caused to intersex, transsexual, non-binary and any other non-conforming person is highly significant. It causes untold social harm, violence, mental illness, and suicide. It perpetuates a culture of false normality that has no basis in how things really are. The sole reason for having to assign a lifetime legal binary gender status to everyone, is so that discrimination can be made, so that people can be treated, not appropriately, but differently by definition.

The river

Which does bring me back to where I was. Things are things and are separable, by naming them, by giving them status. The more we break things down, the more we break them up. The less we break things down, the greater the integrity. Think. A river is an entity. It is a rivulet, or a stream, or a torrent, or an estuary. It is an inlet or an outlet, it is a place of safety and or of danger. It is also water, rocks, banks, weed, an ecosystem. It is minerals, hydrogen, oxygen, carbohydrates, it is flow, it is swirl, ripple, wave and wash. It is atoms, molecules and bonds, it is subatomic particles, it is quantum interaction, it is 100 per cent complex electromagnetic energy. We see it, hear it, smell it, are washed away by it. It is a river. And all those itemised aspects? They are nouns, not adjectives. Where does any one begin and another end? And yet we distinguish by naming, by giving identities to aspects that are, essentially, indivisible.

Are the identifications in the lists important? Of course. To the sailor, estuary and safety matter. To the environmental scientist the waterborne contents matter. To the hiker the size and flow are important. To the painter, the light matters. But the breakdown labels do not contain the river or constrain it. If I were to say that as a sailor, ‘clear blue water’ was irrelevant, and that ‘tidal / non-tidal’ was the only label that mattered, and that every river, entering open water or not, had to be legally registered that way, you would say it was OK in a nautical legal register, but that as an identity it was only one of many.

Identification has value to the identifier, but it doesn’t change the nature of anything. It separates out the relevance to one kind of observer, but it does not divide the world in itself. Identification is a convenience only. For a fish, a whirlpool in the river has no boundary; it is not a thing but a place where the indivisible river tends to move in a different pattern of flow. Naming the whirlpool does not make it extractable, even though there is value in describing the observation. Does the whirlpool have an identity? Only when it matters to an observer; otherwise no. When is the river a stream? Only when it matters; and language confers the meaning. We are tangled in semantics as quickly as in river-weed. Your meaning and mine may not be the same; the sailor, the walker, the environmental scientist, the fish, do not have to agree, but none has the right to say the others are wrong. What would the river say?

Legal status

This is a science teacher. You are a migrant. She is a refugee. One person, but labels that convey three significances and confer rigid opinions. That person and I are two equally real, indistinguishably human, beings.

Being human is not a legal status.

Being a refugee is.

Being a woman is.

Being of non-binary gender is not.

Who creates a legal status and why? Legal status is a form of identity that exerts authority of one human being over another. Two equally real, indistinguishably human, beings. One has the right to confer identity and give legal status, the other may not identify themselves. The first grants rights and privileges under their own authority, and in a democracy we assume this authority to be beneficial to society as a whole. In terms of behaviours this makes sense. A ‘harbour’ or ‘estuary’ on a chart means you won’t ground your ship and endanger others. Granting asylum is a good thing in a way that welcoming unrestrained economic migration may not. In all cases a judgement about distinguishing one thing from another is made. But when it comes to society, the better and more useful distinctions are around doing rather than being. You are a builder, please fix my house. You are a horticulturist, I want to check before you install my new shower. More importantly, you are a registered surgeon, you are a qualified electrician, you are an articled lawyer. These have a status that is important, because if you are not a registered surgeon, I do not want you near me with a knife! I cannot be a surgeon because in my heart of hearts I simply know that I am one. Being a surgeon is actually a doing thing, a practise.

I am human, not by someone’s authority but because it is what I am. There is a wide range of characteristics to accept this self-knowledge, but not just one. And tracing my ancestry will finally lead back to a parent whose human label you will begin to question more precisely. But there will not be just one thing by which you would grant a posthumous birth certificate as human, or not. Thankfully we don’t have to make these decisions.

I am a woman, not by someone’s authority but because it is what I am. There is a wide range of characteristics to accept this self-knowledge, but not just one. I have been granted a birth certificate that states I was born a girl, not because I am a woman, but because in my society there is a legal difference between a female human being and male one. They are not treated equally. To be myself, I do not need to belong to one or either camp, but I do not want to be called something I am not. I look at men who are clearly men and know I am not one of those. I look at women who are clearly women and I do not feel this. I look at ambiguous people and it simply does not matter how they self-identify.

A friend, or several, of mine is neither male nor female. Perhaps through ambiguous physiology, perhaps because of a complete lack of sense of gender-belonging as male or female. They are every bit themselves as I am myself, but my society says that they cannot be neither. Their own identity, though equally human, is not what they are allowed to be. Legally it is obligatory to confer one thing or another onto them, otherwise they cannot be treated in a sufficiently discriminatory way – for the good of society, as our Ministry of Justice would have it.

A whirlpool turns, but you cannot define its boundary other than very approximately; it is part of the river.

Male? Female? Neither? You cannot define the boundaries other than approximately; we are all human.

So identities of any kind are made in order to create controlled communication. Don’t sail here, don’t swim there, grant this kind privileges, give those something different. Fair enough if it’s about behaviour (tidal, danger, qualifications, criminal), but not if it’s about being.

I am not a woman by permission or certification.