Dear Reader, as you read these lines, you probably do not give a second thought to who you are.
You are either a boy or a girl, a him or a her, a he or a she. It is that simple, we think, but in fact, it is not.
The United Nations informs us that 1.7 per cent of the world’s population are neither.
The subject has come to the fore one more time when on 18 June the High Court case for gender neutral passport classification was denied.
British activist Christie Cane has been fighting for 25 years for neutral gender identity calling for an X option on application forms for those who identify as neither male or female.
The argument of the UK Home Office was that the current policy was necessary for “security”.
Such classification may induce violence, hostility, bullying and in some cases, murder. The judge agreed and the case was lost. The fight continues as Cane is supported by 600,000 Britons.
Not all countries see gender diversity as a “security threat”. Last December, Germany joined a group of countries which recognise “intersex”, or third gender, as lawful. Such is the case in Australia, New Zealand, Malta, Argentina, Denmark, Canada, among others as well as several states in the US, California, Oregon, New Jersey and more.
France will have none of it. A French court stated “The distinction between male and female is a cornerstone of social and legal organisation and recognising a third gender would involve numerous legislative changes.”
The Vatican has also dismissed the concept that gender identity can be fluid. It flatly rejected the notion that individuals can choose their gender. Roman Catholic preaching is based on the intrinsic biological differences between man and woman. Many Catholic advocates were hoping for a more inclusive approach, especially with Pope Francis at the helm, who, when informed that one of his priests was gay, remarked “Who am I to judge.”
While our gender is assigned at birth, it does not capture the complexity of real lives.
Science tells us that our hormones and chromosomes determine our sex. Females have 2XX chromosomes, Males have 1X and 1 Y chromosomes. The gender is determined at conception, or so we thought.
What if the internal hormones do not coincide with the assigned definition on your birth certificate. Your appearance and your feelings clash — what then?
Maybe it does not matter to the vast majority of humanity, but it certainly matters to those who cannot in all honesty mark M or F on official documents. If you cannot tick one or the other, you do not exist.
What difference does it make if genders became optional social identities, rather than rigid legal categories imposed at birth?
It is rather ironic that the view of the ancient world was more liberal than the present.
A third gender is a concept that is at least 9,000 years old.
There are so many genetic disorders in which sex-chromosomes are either missing or redundant. Birth defects occur in which infants are born with ambiguous genders.
Long before the word “transgender” was in use, gender variance existed in ancient cultures.
In the Indian subcontinent, “Hijra” are eunuchs, intersex and transgender people, officially neither male nor female. India is the only country where the tradition of eunuchs has been in existence since the ninth century and still prevalent today. They are legal, accepted, befriended and enjoy complete civil rights. They not only vote but are elected to political office.
Indian Bollywood movies often portray them openly, mostly as domestics in households. More than a million form the flourishing prosperous community of undetermined gender.
In Europe third gender identification existed 4,500 years ago, depicted in art around the Mediterranean from 9,000 to 3,700 years ago.
Androgynous figures were depicted with bodies, male on one side and female on the other.
Roman Emperor Elagabalus (d 222), preferred to be called “lady” instead of “lord”.
In ancient Greece and Rome there were trans-female, “galli” priests, and women who passed as men in order to vote, fight or study. It is obvious it has been an age-old struggle for women.
Ancient Egyptians threatened enemies with castration. The tradition ended with Cleopatra in 30 BC. The practice, however, was prevalent in Persia, and European courts were surrounded by eunuchs who often had more influence than nobles and court officials.
In China, eunuchs have existed for 4,000 years. It ended in 1910.
In Arabia, mukhanuthan fulfilled third gender roles since the 600s.
The Navahos and Zuni tribes in pre-colonisation of the American continent had traditional roles for trans-women and trans-men.
Officially, only two sexes exist, despite several cultures acknowledging three or more.
Gender is a person’s psychological sense of self — either male, female, neither or both. This already creates four genders, you think.
ABC News has so far identified 58 genders. There is talk of 76 genders: neutral, gender-queer, two-spirit, cis-gender, gender fluid, non-comforting, gender variant, pan gender, etc…etc…etc.
Users can now select a “custom” gender. It is possible there will be as many genders as there are personalities.
Are we what our birth certificates state, or how we feel as individuals?
Who are we to deny the rights of any human being?
Who are they to change a tradition on which our societies, our families, our lives are built on?
Democracy needs to find an answer for this dilemma.
“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly