[sticky entry] Sticky: about:me

Jun. 4th, 2011 12:01 am
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Hello! Welcome! I'm Alex, this is my blog, I have opinions. Lots of them. I like people! I like discussion! Having said which, have some house rules.

  • This is a safer space and I will moderate comments accordingly. (This goes for me too: please do call me out when I get things wrong.)
  • I try to make this blog as accessible as possible. Please tell me if there's anything I can improve.
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English has historically lacked a gender-neutral title for use by lay people (specifically non-clergy, non-academics, non-military etc). In the UK there have been recent strides towards improving matters in this area. Here's a collection of links on the subject.

What am I missing?

(As an aside, when I told English Heritage that my preferred title was "Misc", they duly wrote it down on the application form. When my membership card eventually arrived, the title was "M"...)
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In addition to the gender markers "M" and "F", international standards allow for the marker "X" to be used in both human- and machine-readable sections of passports. Use of this option seems to be gathering momentum at the moment, and thanks to Australia's recent adoption public awareness is currently high. What that X actually means is, however, quite variable. Here's a summary of the situation as I understand it, presented in the form of a linkspam.


  • New Australian passports allow third gender option (BBC)
  • The official policy (Australian government). Here X means "indeterminate/unspecified/intersex" and "[a] letter from a medical practitioner certifying that the person [...] [is] intersex and do not identify with the sex assigned to them at birth, is acceptable." To their credit the policy does use singular they - but overall this isn't much good for non-binary people
  • Zoe has a nice clear summary of who will be affected and how
  • New Zealand also offers gender X, but not for intersex people [content warning for degendering]


  • In India the third gender option is displayed in the human-readable section of the passport as E (apparently for eunuch). I'm not clear on the usage or availability but I understand it is intended for use by hijra.


(Thanks to Nat at Practical Androgyny for ferretting out several of the UK-related links!)
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I'm currently working my way through Kate Bornstein's books: I'm spending my summer at a university where - to my shock - the GLBTQ library actually caters to all its letters. It's an interesting experience: Kate seems to alternate between saying things I disagree with profoundly, and single sentences that sort out problems I've been having for years.

Tonight I want to talk about one of the latter instances. In the book Gender Outlaw: on men, women, and the rest of us, Kate says:
This culture attacks people on the basis of being or not being correctly gendered (having a politically correct body).

And I thought yes.

My queer body is not politically correct.

I am white. I am thin. To that extent, yes, I am politically correct.

But I'm not straight. I don't have marriage equality. It's not politically expedient - though to be fair both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have now expressed support. I'm not taught in schools: Section 28 was repealed while I was in secondary school, and yet there was not even a whisper about queer sexualities during sex ed. It still seems to be the case that portrayal of a queer person is sufficient for primary schools to pull out of community projects (petition).

I'm not male, and I'm not female, but there's no way to get legal recognition of this. Things are only marginally easier for binary-gendered trans* people.

I'm sound of neither body nor mind. I have a progressive chronic illness. I receive Disabled Students' Allowance, but I'm highly unlikely to receive any state help with coping after I graduate: the cuts being made to benefits for sick and disabled people, as described in great detail at Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, aim to get something like ninety per cent of existing claimants off support. I don't stand a chance: most of the time, I'm able to talk in complete sentences, and most of the time I can move around the house - albeit often slowly, painfully, and only with help. The burden of care is going to fall on the people who love me.

Oh, I can be your stereotype, all right - your queer disabled third-generation-immigrant English-as-a-second-language poster child - and I'll tell you this for free: my body is neither politically expedient nor politically correct.

I've known for a long time that "political correctness" is a term used to dismiss the concerns and hurts of minority groups, but it's only in the last twenty-four hours that I've realised just how back-to-front that term is.
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Something I come up against quite frequently - for a variety of reasons - is people arguing about singular they. I find this frustrating and exhausting.

It irritates me in academic terms: for starters, deprecation of its use is a relatively modern phenomenon, has never been universal, and is inconsistent with usage of the pronoun you. More positively: they is simple, readily understood, and elegant - or at least no more inelegant than any other part of language.

For seconds, try this list of links:

  • Wikipedia, of course, has a lot to say. Note particularly the section on usage.
  • Language Log has a category on the subject [trigger warning for some of their case studies], including discussion of the circumstances under which it is inelegant.
  • Everybody loves their Jane Austen: a history, with exmaples.

    ... but that is not all (said the Cat in the Hat...). This is personal, too. The issue of gender neutral language is a thorny one - in large part because large swathes of the population reject singular they out of hand. I don't feel any great need to rehash the usual arguments against the alternatives (you can find them by link-hopping from here, but there's an additional point that isn't often raised by style guides: "he or she" erases people of non-binary genders.

    This is the case whether using the pronouns in the generic sense or in reference to a particular person of unknown gender: specifying a set of genders in this context implies that all possible genders have been covered, which simply isn't true.

    So: this is why I prefer singular they for the generic - including over deliberately non-binary pronouns like the Spivak pronouns and the hir/zie set - and to some extent why I prefer it for myself: it's a blank slate. It makes no assumptions, about either the gender of the person to whom they refer, or about the range of possible genders. And, you know, that's cool with me.
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Please let me know about any that I'm missing.

Regional groups. )
University groups. )
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Screenshot. )

What Dr Martens have done here is - as the title suggests - got it right, in two simple but important ways:

  1. Gender is optional.
  2. Four options are provided: male, female, other, blank (i.e. prefer not to say).

Is it ideal? Well, no: in my perfect world, gender would be write-in - and potentially set up to suggest popular options in situations where data cleanliness is important. By this I mean that somebody typing "f" would have top options beginning with f suggested, a la word clouds or indeed Google Smartsearch. The only places I've found that actually achieve this are, well, Disapora (add me! I have invitations!), and, oddly enough, Caltech's Student Faculty Programme application system - though note that Caltech falls into the fallacy that it's only people outside the gender binary who self-identify.

Honourable mentions do go to both Dreamwidth and Blogger: both offer four options, but Dreamwidth has the slight edge at least from my point of view that reporting gender is entirely optional.

Well, what about it?
  • I've fired off an e-mail to Dr Martens to thank them - and to ask if they'd be willing to give me their stats on how many people tick "other".
  • [redirect profile] transfinite has compiled a list of places that get it wrong. Where else do you know that gets it right? We'll get the list up on the main website in due course. :-)
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Trigger warnings for binarism, sexism, and cissexism apply.

The News Quiz (BBC|Wikipedia) is, as the BBC says, a "topical panel quiz show, taking its questions from the week's news stories."

This week one topic of discussion was Storm, a Canadian child whose parents are allowing Storm to make their own choice about when to disclose their sex and gender. I'm not going to link to news articles, because it's easy to find more information, and the family has explained that they are feeling overwhelmed - but I will note that, as the excellent blog Sociological Images points out, this isn't new.

The News Quiz, alas, got it very badly wrong.

The following transcript is taken from Series 74, episode 7, starting at 19:46. Panelists were Susan Calman, Jeremy Hardy, Andrew Maxwell and Paul Sinha; the chair was Sandi Toksvig. The episode is available on iPlayer until the third of June.

Transcript. )
There's a lot in there to deconstruct.

I can't do all of it, but feel free to contribute in comments. Off the top of my head:
  • "No freedom or choice on the part of the child" - a gross misrepresentation. Allowing a child the choice to disclose their own sex is potentially extremely empowering: reactions to babies are measurably different depending on their perceived sex: this even begins before birth.[1] Taking away the ability to pigeonhole a child's personality based on a binary label means people will actually have to get to know the child rather than prescribing and suggesting its behaviour: sounds like freedom to me.
  • "Boys have willies and girls don't!" This is sexist, in that it defines women as lacking; it is cissexist, in that it erases the existence of trans children, and equates people's gender with their genitalia. Note the follow-up: vaginas are described as too technical. (It's also a gross and binaristic oversimplification, because of course It's A Bit More Complicated Than That.)
  • "Boys like boys' things and girls like girls' things." This is a harmful and sexist attitude, and a self-fulfilling prophecy: children are extremely sensitive to gender policing. It's also ridiculous, particularly given the example of a pink dinosaur: as Sociological Images points out, pink is a manly colour - or at least was constructed as such until the 1950s! Restating this idea contributes to the problem.
  • "Why don't you [David Stocker] give your children normal names, and YOU walk around in a post-gender freakzone?" Andrew Maxwell here suggests that "normal" doesn't include non-binary people; he minimises the difficulty of changing one's name; he overlooks the fact that David's gender is (presumably) male, which accords with his name, whereas Storm's gender is as yet unknown; and he is quite explicit that he views people outside the gender binary, or people trying to challenge gendered assumptions, as "freaks" to be mocked: which is exactly what already-marginalised groups don't need.
  • "Men who think they're women, women who think they're men." This is a significant misrepresentation of trans* people, and suggests that e.g. trans women are "really" men. It is harmful and inaccurate and bigoted.

I am appalled that the BBC chose to endorse the harmful and bigoted views expressed in this segment. Let's let people know how disappointed we are.

More ideas? Please leave them in comments. Thanks! Want more references? Ask me and I'll dig them out.

[1] Kane, 2009. 'I wanted a soul-mate:' gendered anticipation and frameworks of accountability in parents' preferences for sons and daughters. Symbolic Interaction, 34 (4), 372-389.
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