Since joining the gang here at Rightly Considered, I have been waiting for a suitable topic on which to make my first post. That opportunity came with the news that mere weeks after Canada’s Bill C-16 passed, there is an effort in British Columbia to remove sex/gender markers from birth certificates, allegedly because such markers constitute human rights violations. Alas, Catholic Hulk beat me to it, but I thought I would make a post anyway and expand on his central point.
If you aren’t familiar, the case involves Kori Doty, who is fighting for their child, Searyl Atli, to be issued a birth certificate without specifying sex or gender. Contrary to what Catholic Hulk stated in his post, a birth certificate has not in fact been issued. Instead a health services card (for provincial medical insurance) was issued with a “U”, presumably for unknown or unspecified. Meanwhile, the case is in front of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. (!)
Their argument is that since baby Searyl will not discover his/her gender identity until later in life, it is presumptuous and potentially harmful to assign Searyl a sex based solely on a visual examination of genitals. But wait, are we not supposed to distinguish sex and gender? As Catholic Hulk persuasively argues, these people seem to be confused about their own ideology:
If a healthy gender identity can be distinct from and independent of sex, and if sex can be known without knowing “gender identity”, as transgender advocates would have us believe, then the assignment of a sex to a baby does not also assign that baby’s gender identity.
The matter is not made any clearer by the fact that many of the major news outlets also appear to equivocate between sex and gender in their reporting on this story. It is also worth noting that the government documents in question specify sex and not gender. So it is already the case that Canadians can receive birth certificates without a gender marker, since they don’t specify gender at all.
Whether the equivocation is the result of lazy thinking or intentional and strategic obfuscation on this increasingly opaque issue is hard to say. Here is how the activist organization supporting Kori Doty, The Gender-Free ID Coalition, defines sex and gender:
Medically, physical characteristics including genitals, chromosomes, hormones, and internal morphology.
Sex is the physical characteristics one has at birth.
Socially one is assigned a sex as either M or F based on a visual inspection. Occasionally intersex infants with ambiguous genitalia are surgically altered to be raised as either M or F.
Gender is the social practice of treating people as a member of “a” gender, usually either M or F.
Gendering practices include most notably the ubiquitous practice of requiring that people report their gender as either M or F.
In popular understanding ‘gender’ is conflated with ‘sex’.
That last line is ironic given their own apparent conflation. Meanwhile, the CBC reports Doty’s own thinking:
Doty says a visual inspection at birth can’t accurately determine what sex or gender that person will have or identify with for the rest of their life — whether it’s because they have both male and female genitals, as is the case with intersex individuals or because they don’t identify with the gender they present, as is the case with transgender or non-binary persons.
But if sex just is the physical characteristics that one can identify with a visual inspection, per the above definition, then it is eminently possible to accurately determine the sex of a child at birth (exempting the rare intersex cases). Even if everything that happens after that is up for grabs in one way or another, we could admit that there is such thing as sex at birth.
However, I suspect the gender activists are not satisfied with that modest conclusion. For Doty is concerned that what we say about the sex of a baby must not prejudge “what sex or gender that person [a] will have or [b] identify with for the rest of their life.” So evidently, like gender, sex may not be stable across time. It may change depending on either a) what your “true” sex ends up being, or b) what sex you identify with later in life. In the former case, it appears that sex can even change despite unambiguous physical characteristics present at birth, since you may not identify with those sex characteristics later in life. There simply is no fact of the matter about sex at birth.
Where does this leave gender? The best I can make of it is that someone with a gender identity that doesn’t match their sex assigned at birth is reconstructed as a person for whom the sex they were assigned at birth was false or at least undetermined. For example, it wasn’t true that the mother of Caitlyn Jenner gave birth to a son in 1949. Such a person acquires their new “true” sex assignment (with the assistance of surgery and hormones) at a later date, and this discovery alters retroactively their sex in the past. We are to suppose such a person was a woman from the very beginning, a woman stuck in a man’s body. Sex, then, turns out to be as much a matter of identity as gender. There is no such thing as biological sex.
So it seems the gender activists do want to have their cake and eat it too, and perhaps they can, but not without the high cost of ignoring biology altogether. Finally, Catholic Hulk writes:
If they [gender activists] wish to proclaim that sex does not determine or entail a “gender identity”, then they cannot consistently claim that assignments of sex on birth certificates determine or are incompatible with certain “gender identities.”
Here rather than sex determining gender identity, as most ordinary people believe, it actually appears that the gender activists believe gender identity determines sex to the extent that sex cannot be determined definitively until we learn how a person (child?) gender identifies. This is hardly a coherent position, given their own definitions of sex and gender. But it does tell us something about the slipperiness of their thinking.
There is a lot more that can be said about this topic beyond its logical conundrums, so I’ll use a future follow up post to explore some of its social, moral, and cultural implications.