New agenders: The prickly issue of transgender politics

by Virginia Larson / 14 May, 2018

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Some “isms” seem to start with a noble, necessary cause to fight discrimination, only to mire themselves in a kind of militancy that defies reason.

There’s quite a lot of telling-off on Twitter.

A writer was reprimanded recently by a notable Twitter scold for “deadnaming a trans person”. Possibly, you’re not up with the latest lingo for causing offence. To “deadname” is to use the birth name of somebody who has changed their name, “most commonly attributed to trans people”. To deadname someone, then, is to invalidate and disrespect the person. And a transgender person, just in case you’ve been snoozing your way through the latest incarnation of the sexual revolution, is someone who has a gender identity that differs from their assigned sex.

Fair enough. I’d do my best to use someone’s post-transition name, hopefully being granted some margin for error, like simply forgetting they’re now Joy not Roy, or vice versa. But the Twitter teller-off didn’t stop there. The writer, she huffy-puffed, was also guilty of “light misogyny” and “…shitting on women’s work”. His piece was “egregious trash”.

Well, I couldn’t resist following a link to egregious trash, which sounded like it might be bad enough to be good. It turned out to be just plain good: satirist Steve Braunias, in fact, in fine form – wise-cracking, praising and occasionally piss-taking his way through three days of a writers’ festival. There was no misogyny, just a few well-aimed barbs at the dull and boring of both sexes.

The second time I opened the story, however, the trans person’s former name had been deleted. I know Steve. He doesn’t like people messing with his copy. I messaged him. He phoned back. I expected high dudgeon and got humility. He’d not heard the term “deadnaming” but had been “appalled” when told he’d revealed a trans person’s previous identity and caused hurt. “It said more about me and my old-fashioned attitudes,” he said. “There are new models of behaviour; it’s easy enough to be educated and not be a jerk.”

I’m not sure I’d have been so apologetic. The trans person Steve accidentally upset happily told her gender-change story to a national newspaper four years earlier.

Maybe we’ve always needed the castigators and placard-wavers to achieve worthy societal re-education programmes. But some “isms” seem to start with a noble, necessary cause to fight discrimination, only to mire themselves in a kind of militancy that defies reason. Under New York City’s human rights law, you can be fined for not calling someone “ze”, “hir”, or any of 31 protected pronouns, if that’s what the individual demands you use.

In Canada, psychology professor Jordan Peterson caused a furore when he refused to comply with the mandated use of gender-neutral pronouns for trans people. He rejected the injunction on free speech grounds – adding he would use a preferred pronoun for someone if asked by that individual. He just didn’t want the decision foisted on him by the state. Anti-Peterson forces mobilised. He nearly lost his job at the University of Toronto as a result.

Back home, there was a minor kerfuffle over the absence of sexuality questions in the 2018 Census. Stats NZ said it was keen “to collect data about sex, gender identity and sexual orientation… to contribute to better understanding of society’s diversity and decision-making” – but explained that its pre-Census testing programme showed gender questions were “not likely to produce high-quality data”.

What they were saying, in bureaucratese, is the test surveys showed people put in silly answers and spoiled the results. It’s difficult to ask gender questions that correctly differentiate between biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. Australia tried a gender question in its 2016 census, offering people the option of ticking “other”, rather than “male” or “female”. A box was also provided to specify their previously unrecognised gender. Of more than 23 million Australians, fewer than 1300 gave their sex or gender as “other”. More respondents, around 2400, ticked both male and female boxes. The Australian Bureau of Statistics suggested the “other” figure might be low because some transgender people had already suffered discrimination and were afraid to reveal their true selves. But what better place to reveal your true self – and get some political recognition for your minority group – than in a government Census? In the end, it was simply not “high-quality data” for anyone.

The Census writers will figure out how to ask the right questions. A friend of mine suggested we have a “third gender” like the hijras of India, who are now recognised in law. I have faith New Zealanders will figure it out, too – with education and encouragement – and the now- extended LGBTQIA community won’t need the picketers and nitpickers to find their place.


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