Quote of the week

My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?

Nathaniel P.Morris
Scientific American
11 April 2007

A man by any other name looks just as sweet…

Julio Cuesta on Tuesday became the first person in Spain legally to change their sex/gender description without undergoing surgery under a new law approved last month. Julio, who was born a woman, obtained the right to have his gender description officially altered to that of a man after taking hormones for at least two years.

In South Africa, the Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act of 2003 also provides for a person to have his or her sex description changed without having surgery. Unfortunately, the officials at the Department of Home Affairs have failed to apply this law correctly and have refused applications of individuals who have not “completed” the surgery. Many individuals would like to do the surgery but cannot afford it, while others are happy not to do all the surgery available.

(Disclosure: I have been advising the group Gender DynamiX, who is now assisting individuals to challenge the decisions of the Home Affairs officials.)

Of course, despite all the evidence to the contrary, society continues to essentialise sex and gender as fixed, unchanging and exclusive categories. Many people experience their sex or their gender in more fluid terms. Some do not physically conform to the categories of “male” or “female”, while others do not associate themselves with the sex or gender that their bodies are supposed to reflect.

Yet from the moment we are born, we are policed and disciplined to ensure that we conform to prevailing societal sex and gender stereotypes. This is deeply oppressive to all of us because it diminishes our ability to make choices about our sex and gender identity and behaviour. However, because sex and gender policing is so all pervasive in our society, it is difficult to bring across the human rights angle to this issue.

The law therefore helps to perpetuate the existing oppressive sex/gender regime, enforcing a certain cultural construction of the world on all of us. Why should it matter to the state or anyone else whether we call ourselves a “man”, a “woman” or anything else? Why is it important for someone with a penis not to be effeminate or for someone with a vagina to wear a dress? There is nothing inherently good about these categories and there surely is no need to limit our sex or gender identities to these two categories only.

It is time that human rights law take note of the oppressive nature of the sex/gender dichotomy and begin to seek ways to accommodate a wider variety of sex and gender identities in our society. A start can be made by applying the existing law properly.

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