The rise of the ‘third gender’

Trans activists calling for the institution of a third gender miss the point – language changes with society, not the other way around.

The idea that people should have the right to be recognised as inhabiting an alternative, or ‘third’ gender has been bubbling away for quite a while now. And this is not just a question for trans people. In fact, until recently the overriding desire of most trans people was to be accepted as their chosen gender.

Now Facebook has implemented a customisable gender option. Exactly where the pressure for the campaign for this move came from is hard to tell. While conducting research for this article I was directed to a Facebook page called ‘This site needs a third gender option’. This page was set up in May 2011 and has to date received a total of 74 likes. 

In the real world, changes have been taking place for more than half a decade to accommodate the concerns of non-binary gendered people. Since 2007, several countries including India, Pakistan, New Zealand, Australia and most recently Germany have made legal provisions for the inclusion of a third gender on passports, identity documents and birth certificates.  In the case of Germany, this change is focused exclusively on those babies that are born with ambiguous genital characteristics (known as intersex). In the other cases, the change allows adults, under varying circumstances, to assert their right to be classed as a third sex.

The legal recognition of intersex people and others who cannot properly be said to be either male or female is probably a good idea, but this should not impact upon the vast majority of people who have no problem living in a binary-gendered world or using binary-gendered language.

History is replete with failed attempts to re-invent or modify language, from Esperanto to the feminist PC language of the Eighties. But this campaign to institute a third sex in language and law may well prove to be the most unstable project yet. The ever-changing and ever-expanding taxonomy of words and identities aimed at respecting difference among transsexuals, always seems to cause undue offence among transsexuals themselves. To use the word transsexual, for instance, as a noun (rather than as an adjective) is said, by some, to diminish a person’s identity down to a single trait. The very term transsexual has been replaced, first by transgendered (to assert that fact that it is about gender not sexuality) and now by Trans*. The capital ‘T’ is obligatory and the asterisk is meant to represent inclusivity. Apparently, to simply call someone ‘Trans’ implicitly denigrates the experiences of cross-dressers and gender-queer folk who are not intent upon making a full transition from one gender to the other.

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Amid all the offence being taken over these linguistic acrobatics, the one thing trans campaigners, and now Facebook, fail to realise is that language does not respond well to being artificially manipulated. As Wittgenstein once remarked, language is like a toolbox, you use the best tool available for the job in hand. With general use, over time, words and their meanings change to reflect changing forms of social consciousness. It is not the other way around. Any attempt to force language to respond to the presumed delicate sensitivities of marginal groups not only underlines and reifies these presumed vulnerabilities, it also undermines the responsiveness of language to real experience. 

Chrissie Daz is a writer and cabaret performer based in Birmingham.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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