USYD and the administration of gender

The University needs to respect students’ rights to determine their own gender, writes Anonymous

The University needs to respect students' rights to determine their own gender, writes Anonymous

I received the email at 3:45 on a Tuesday afternoon: “The Student Centre was recently requested to confirm details of a number of personal details changes that were made this year. Reviewing the birth certificate you provided, it showed your name as *MALE NAME*, and sex: Female. As a result we had to change your recorded gender (back) to female. … To update your gender on your student record, the University requires an updated birth certificate…”

It’s a little unexpected since, so far, the fact that I’d ticked the ‘male’ box on the change of personal details form when informing the University of my official change of name has caused zero problems for anyone.

Quite the opposite, actually; rather than having to deal either with a tutor passing around the roll with that bothersome ‘F’ beside my name (thereby outing me to the class), or having to rush to front of the first few tutorials to make sure the tutor would do no such thing, (thereby outing me to my tutor), I was able to stroll in, sit down and not worry about the emotional, mental, social and potential physical safety ramifications of being outed or outing myself.

I wonder if the University is aware, in asking trans* students to have their gender officially changed on their birth certificates, that they are asking us to engage in a baffling, invasive, expensive, and emotionally taxing administrative process that requires most of us to (a) undergo a procedure that would render us sterile, and (b) be unmarried (god forbid an existing state-sanctioned relationship be allowed to subsist if it’s going to be officially, rather than de facto, queer).

In Australia, each state and territory has its own Department of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, with its own set of legislative criteria for governing official changes of gender. For Australian-born individuals, this means that the law in their birth state or territory governs them; for those born overseas, they are governed by the law of the state or territory in which they reside.

I was born in Canberra. The ACT requires the “alteration of a person’s reproductive organs” for an official change of gender. For most people assigned female at birth, this means a hysterectomy; for most of those assigned male at birth, this would seem to mean a vaginoplasty. Not only do these procedures range in cost from $7000 to $30 000, but they also result in the sterilisation of people who might otherwise wish to have biological children, and can involve long periods of recovery.

This is broadly the same in other states and territories, though the language varies, and there is anecdotal evidence that suggests that, in New South Wales at least, there is room for administrative and medical discretion. In some instances this discretion works in favour of trans* people, whilst in others, it doesn’t. In the case of the latter, a trans* person may have to ‘shop’ around different health and service providers to find those who are willing to generously interpret the language of the act – a costly, time-consuming, and emotionally and mentally draining process.

The other exception is Western Australia, where the wording of the Gender Reassignment Act 2000 (WA) refers to a ‘medical or surgical procedure’, enabling the High Court to find in a 2011 case that hormone therapy, as a medical procedure, may be sufficient grounds for recognition of the affirmed gender. That case was also decided on the WA Act’s reference to ‘gender characteristics,’ defined as the ‘physical characteristics’ of a person that identifies them as male or female.

The specific wording of the WA Act means the wider legal implications of the WA case remain to be seen. There may be grounds for similar appeals in other states, though again, this would be a costly, time-consuming, and no doubt gruelling undertaking.
In light of these legal requirements, the University’s email amounts to a politely stated refusal to recognise a trans* person’s gender unless they undergo expensive, invasive, often medically unnecessary procedures that preclude the future possibility of biological children, and, in the case of married trans* people, that they divorce their partner.

If the federal government, a body for whom I have very low expectations, can recognise a person’s (“preferred”) gender, I fail to see why the University of Sydney can’t follow suit.

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