A non-specific sex

I have previously written about the unfortunate way in which boys and girls are pigeonholed based purely on their biology. But this gendered stereotyping and heteronormative worldview go far beyond the choices parents make when buying toys. It permeates all aspects of our society impacting on health programs, health policy and ultimately the ability of all individuals who do not fit within the binary construct of ‘male’ and ‘female’ to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. This week has seen a significant advancement when it comes to determining sex however. The NSW High Court has ruled that “non-specific” is now a legally allowed option on official records. The court found that there were no legal grounds that required a person to be identified as either a man or a woman, and perhaps this will now be recognised a little more in the wider society. Ironically, it was suggested by the court that the only place where a legal definition of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ may be required is in the Federal Marriage Act – perhaps it is time for this Act to be changed so that the gender binary is not used as an impediment when it comes to love and the legal security of all families. For Norrie, the person at the centre of the case, it was a matter of equality. And for the same-sex parent families with which we work equality is all they seek.


Norrie Photo: Dalla Kilponen

Writing in The Conversation Prof Marian Pitts examines this legal decision further, highlighting the frustration and distress that results when people feel that their sex and gender identity are not being recognised. Over a number of years now there has been much progress made in the understanding that gender is not necessarily so black and white. Just earlier this year the popular social media site Facebook changed its settings to recognise over 50 different options for gender. Many people will not notice such a change, but for those people that it does affect such recognition sends a powerful message of acceptance.

It is an issue that a large proportion of the population would give little thought to. In fact something as simple as the difference between gender and biological sex passes most people by. It is quite possible to be biologically male yet identify as female when it comes to gender. Even when biology and primary gender identity match it might not be as straightforward as it seems; say a person of female biological sex who identifies as female in terms of their gender identity but also acknowledges typically male characteristics. In a heterosexual world this person might be considered as a tomboy, but if we complicate things further and add in sexual orientation then she might be described as a butch lesbian.

Prof Pitts begins her discussion questioning whether it is necessary for institutions to ask people to identify their sex as male or female. Working with children in many family contexts the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program often collects data on both gender and biological sex. An understanding of the social determinants of health tells us that there are many factors that contribute to overall wellbeing, and gender identity and biological sex, as well as sexual orientation and a myriad of other characteristics, are all important factors. If we do not collect these data in our ongoing epidemiological work then we are not in a position to identify areas of need as we seek to enable a healthy and fulfilling life for all. The challenge is to collect information in an inclusive manner, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to identify in a way that most fits their innate being. As such the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program continues to examine the research it conducts in a way that is both inclusive and empowering.

As we recognise the significance of the NSW ruling we should all reflect on our own roles and ask if we are constraining ourselves to an outdated binary construct. Let’s celebrate difference. Let’s celebrate that non-specific sex.

By Dr Simon R Crouch

Lead Investigator, The Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families