The Canberra High Court in Australia has ruled that characteristics that identify a person as male or female are “confined to external physical characteristics that are socially recognizable.” This recognition does not require knowledge of a person’s sexual organs, the court said. This was after the Australian Gender Reassignment Board 3 years ago had refused to recognise the transmen’s gender without complete surgical reassignment, arguing that “having a female reproductive system is inconsistent with being male”. They had undergone mastectomies and had each been on testosterone for more than 5 years rendering them infertile (although possibly reversible if the hormones were stopped).
Surgical prerequisites for legally changing gender have already been relaxed in South Africa, Britain and some other European countries.
Australia has also passed legislation this year that allows Male, Female or Indeterminate gender options on its passports, a move that Britain announced last month it was also considering. “There have been very many cases of people being detained at airports by immigration in foreign countries simply because their passports don’t reflect what they look like, it’s very distressing, highly inconvenient and frankly sometimes dangerous.”, said Senator Louise Pratt, Australia’s first MP with a trans (FTM) partner, in an interview with ABC Radio.
News stories such as these must be a nightmare for journalists wanting to write it up with respect and yet still grab the reader’s attention through headlines and human interest. Headlines and grab quotes proliferated, such as “Court passes ruling on what it takes to be a man in Australia” (DT), “Men in Australia no longer need a penis to be legally considered a male” – this one is rather stupid in reverse, since if one loses one’s penis due to cancer, accident (remember that in the Hebrew Bible crushed testicles de-manned one and excluded one from entry to the Temple), or deliberate choice, one doesn’t lose one’s status as a man unless one is explicitly transitioning.
Whilst the Daily Telegraph used “female-to-male transsexuals”, the Guardian and Independent called them “transgender people” but went on to refer to them as not having had full “sex change surgeries”, a phrase deprecated by trans communities in favour of variations on gender confirmation/recognition surgeries. The Telegraph used “gender realignment surgery”. Other terms abound: gender reassignment surgery, sex/genital reconstruction surgery, sex affirmation surgery, sex realignment surgery.
Australia had refused to grant the men “gender reassessment certificates”, a proof of gender certificate which within the UK is called “gender recognition”. Not to be confused with Sexual Attitude Reassessment/Restructuring – an often explicit image and group-work based seminar for increasing sexual health professionals’ comfort and knowledge of different attitudes to sex and sexuality.
A sad, strange, and sick story back in 2010 was headlined “Transvestite had sex with a dog at English Heritage Castle” in the Daily Telegraph. What sickened the DT most was probably that it was at an English Heritage Castle, anywhere else would perhaps have been okay. They seemed relieved that after calling EH for comment their spokesperson said “This was a very rare incident”! Phew, well that’s alright then! Other papers, if one can call some of them that, ran with “Transvestite rapes dog – A cross dressing pervert…deviant…” (Morning Star). The dilemma is the dog incident and press language describing sexual perversion, whilst broadly appropriate there, is also used for mainstream transgender stories.
The label ‘transsexual’ conjures up in the minds of some journalists the idea of a sexual deviant rather than someone likely to be struggling with gender identity or exhibiting legitimate gender variance. Admittedly transsexual, to me, is an illogical term anyway, first used by D. O. Cauldwell in 1949 (originally with one ‘s’) but which would be better used for someone attracted to trans people, along the lines of homosexual, heterosexual, pansexual etc. This is why transgender or transperson is a much better suited term.
It it difficult to expect the media to stick to one term when the trans community itself can’t agree. We do, however, agree on disparaging the use of “sex change”, “sex swap” and incorrect gender pronouns in articles and undue attention to the birth gender background of the subjects.