Quote of the week

It is clear that no legitimate objective is advanced by excluding domestic workers from COIDA.  If anything, their exclusion has a significant stigmatising effect which entrenches patterns of disadvantage based on race, sex and gender…. In considering those who are most vulnerable or most in need, a court should take cognisance of those who fall at the intersection of compounded vulnerabilities due to intersecting oppression based on race, sex, gender, class and other grounds.  To allow this form of state-sanctioned inequity goes against the values of our newly constituted society namely human dignity, the achievement of equality and ubuntu.  To exclude this category of individuals from the social security scheme established by COIDA is manifestly unreasonable.

Victor AJ
Mahlangu and Another v Minister of Labour and Others (CCT306/19) [2020] ZACC 24 (19 November 2020)
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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