Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Archive for the ‘Theory Literature’ Category

My Experience of the PhD Viva

“Don’t wear a suit, just a nice shirt is fine”. This was one of the last pieces of advice my primary supervisor, Sally, gave me prior to the viva. That PhD event so formative and significant, and approached with such trepidation by some that one might expect a crack of thunder whenever the word is uttered. My viva was scheduled for 10.30 am on Wednesday 14th December (2016), and so despite living only a 15 minute walk from campus I was naturally up and pacing at 8.00 am – just in case. I tried on several shirts and smart-casual trousers but I could not feel comfortable. “If in doubt, dress up, not down” my father had always said – and so whilst it might’ve gone against the advice I received, I really felt much more comfortable in a suit that morning. With a waistcoat, because why not, it was cold.

I met with Sally 30 minutes before kick-off, for a cup of tea and general encouragement. It had previously been communicated that my internal examiner would come and collect me from my supervisor’s office. Sally would be sitting in – as a PhD student you’re allowed to have one supervisor (silently) observe your viva, if you so wish. Regardless of your choice, a supervisor always has to be available, just in case an examiner wants to discuss something before or after. The ‘mock viva’ I’d had the week before was an informal affair – just a chat really, that for me, sparked the recognition that I needed to avoid trying to answer every sociological question about gender at the same time, if being asked a small point about how I’d contributed towards scholarship on this, that, or the other.

My viva preparation in that single week simply consisted of re-reading the thesis. Those who’ve done a whopping piece of scholarship will know how hard this can be when you’re very close to a large piece of writing, and so I’d deliberately avoided looking at the document since I’d submitted it. This helped a great deal, and I found I was able to bear reading myself (yet again) much more easily than when I was agonizing over the final edits. I highlighted and made notes on things like how I had contributed to scholarship, what original turns-of-phrase I’d deployed, why I’d made certain practical choices or focused on particular bodies of literature over others. Whilst one can’t predict what will come up, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having things covered which you could expect to be expected to answer. I put sticky labels to divide up the chapters and put it all in a ring-binder to take in with me. I also wrote a few bits on the inside of the folder, but nothing much.

The viva itself was… also, seemingly, an informal affair! I took my cup of tea in with me. My examiners were candid, friendly, and made a point of initiating that the viva should be approached as a peer-to-peer conversation about the details of the thing that no-one in the world is more familiar with than you. A bit of nerves is only natural given the symbolic importance of the day, but really, in the scheme of the PhD, it’s going to be the exception, not the rule, where the viva is make-or-break, and you’d be likely to know this weeks ahead of the fact if this were the case.

Probably the most difficult question I received was actually an ethical one, which surprised me, as I felt much more likely to fall foul of some complex theoretical niggle than simply how I did stuff. It was exciting in a way though, to consider a dimension I hadn’t considered in that way before. It also demonstrated (after the fact) that your examiners can disagree with you about something, and yet your position can remain entirely defendable. They’re not looking for perfection because there is no such thing – simply the necessary contributions.

The whole experience took about 90 minutes. My examiners asked my supervisor and me to step outside – we hadn’t managed to walk down the corridor before being called back in, due to a chance encounter (and frantic whispered dissection) with my second supervisor, who was passing. On being called back in, I was particularly humbled to receive no corrections, which did have me shed a tear of relief (just the one). In the haze of endorphins and surreal emotional diffusion that felt like a balloon letting out all its air, I was given a little information on what would happen next (which I’d already obsessively poured over in the ‘Guide to the thesis examination process’ document I had looked up).

In a way, (cynically), the result of a PhD pass is the same for everyone – more work, of one kind or another! Thus, one should not fear failure – your supervisor shouldn’t let you be going in there if that’s on the cards. Everything else is details, for the vast majority. I put a lot of energy into maintaining my well-being over my PhD, because ultimately, nothing is more important. Beyond survival, everything else is for happiness, and one should do the best one can to construct the PhD experience in a way that allows you to be. As one gains experience and confidence, this can increasingly empower you to tread your own path, even in small ways (like wearing a suit). Approaching the viva as an experience to enjoy rather than an ‘exam’ was certainly constructive. And whilst I couldn’t shake the idea that ‘it could all be taken away from me’ until the result was unequivocally stated, I was able to focus a little so as to ignore that irrational doubt.

The viva is a paradox, because it’s an ending and a beginning at the same time. No two are the same, and yet there’s overwhelming similarity in the way people describe their pre-viva nerves and post-viva relief (and subsequent collapse – put time aside for this!). Ultimately though, it’s yours – and it can be a pleasure.

Why We Should Stand Up For Trans Rights and Recognition at the University of Toronto

My good friend and colleague S.W. Underwood and myself wrote a piece in response to Dr. Jordan Peterson’s recent comments at the University of Toronto, regarding his refusal to use the pronouns individuals identify with. Please see here for the article!


Non-binary gender identity negotiation – My PhD explained!

I gave this talk at the 2015 ESSL (Education, Social Sciences, and Law) conference at the University of Leeds. Enjoy!

Insider/Outsider – The Politics of Who to Listen to

As someone who works on non-binary gender identities without unequivocally being an in-group member (though as previously discussed, it’s a little bit complicated), this is an important issue for me. There’s a long and unpleasant history, and not just relating to gender, of people speaking over the voices of groups they are not members of. Of speaking for or about people in ways those people did (or do) not like. This article is not a debate about whether this is a problem or not: it is. Recognition of privilege is something that everyone has a moral imperative to engage with – in part to simply avoid being an ignorant arse who doesn’t recognise hardships others face that they don’t, but also because oppressions are intersectional, which is best illustrated by the comic below – originally posted by Miriam Dobson here.

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However, whilst it’s a good rule of thumb to listen to in-group members telling you things about their group, especially when you’re not a member of that group, there are additional complexities that are worth recognising.

People within marginalised groups disagree.

This should be pretty obvious. Any population big enough to be associated with a social oppression (be that people of colour, queer people, trans people, women, etc.) is going to contain vast swathes of differing opinion. This raises two important points, that may seem a bit contradictory. Firstly, marginalised people can be wrong about things that pertain to the group they’re a member of. Secondly, issues can easily become complex enough that claiming there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ becomes simplistic or troubling all on its own. It’s important to add that the *possibility* of error on the part of a marginalised person doesn’t mean it’s okay for someone to use this to conveniently dismiss claims they don’t like. Especially those claims that come from direct experience. Experiences of different people can contradict, and don’t respectively erase each other. It’s a complex world we live in.

People new to marginalised groups don’t magically become experts immediately. Some never do.

I heard one transgender activist put it this way: ‘coming out is like saying you want to do a GCSE in maths, but then people start asking you advanced calculus all the time and expecting you to know the answer’. Each person is the authority of their own life. But that’s different to being equipped with an arsenal of political, academic, or activist language and nuanced understandings of what things can mean to different people. It’s different to an awareness of historical or cultural contexts, politics, precedents, or social structures. In some cases, it’s vital to remember that a marginalised person doesn’t need any of those things for their voice to still carry a weight and value that a non-marginalised person’s cannot – such as voicing experience. It’s also a problem to expect everyone to be an expert, as not everyone is or wants to be a scholar or an activist.

Whilst I would suggest most people don’t believe you need to be a member of a demographic to study a particular demographic, it’s a good rule of thumb that lived experiences trump theoretical awareness. Experiencing something doesn’t make someone an expert, but there’s a reason why many people who do experience an oppression do become experts – because they have a particularly powerful motivation to do so. We could of course ‘what does ‘expert’ even mean anyway?’ but that’s a different discussion.

Marginalised people can’t speak for all members of the group they occupy, because no-one can. But…

If a marginalised person says ‘we want this’ or ‘we experience that’, it is more likely to be a slight simplification, or a political statement with a particular purpose rather than something hugely problematic. Their social positioning to the political meaning of the statement is changed and charged by their in-group status.

Experiencing one oppression doesn’t mean someone is sensitive to other forms of oppression, necessarily.

You find racist gay people. You find homophobic disabled people. You find transphobic women. This can often have troubling implications, as if they’re highly politically motivated to fight for the rights and well being of their group, they’re almost certainly leaving someone out in the cold.



Often, if a scholar does work on a particular group of people, and many members of that group take issue with what they’re saying, it’s extremely pertinent to listen to the actual people, rather than the theorist. This is illustrated rather perfectly not just by history (it was the highly qualified, expert doctors who decided that homosexuality and transgender were mental illnesses, no?) but also by the continued work hate speech of scholars polemicists such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys.

Ultimately, knowing who to listen to can sometimes be a complex ethical process, dependent on collecting and processing lots of information. But if in doubt (or even if not, in fact), listening to voices of experience is your best bet. The devil can be in the detail where contradiction comes up, but this only heightens the importance of education.

For any FtM readers in the UK in particular…

Below is my PhD proposal, which has been accepted to start later this year. I am going to be looking into problems that exist within medical policy and the medical establishment that unfairly hinder transition.

I am a cis (queer, but cis) white male, and I want you to believe that I recognise how problematic it could be, me trying to do this kind of work without having directly experienced the relevant issues myself. This is why it is going to be of utmost importance to me for this project to be lead by trans* voices. Not to just go around begging for interviews and treating people like data and stats. I intend to earn and keep the trust of anyone and everyone who agrees to work with me in the course of my work over the next few years.

What’s my motivation? Other than the obvious anger anyone who knows even a little bit about systematic cissexism should experience with regards to legistlative and policy structures, my best friend was an incredible trans man who I was very close to, but tragically he took his own life. Also I have been privileged in supporting my (now ex) long term partner through his own transition some time after this.

Bottom line is: please be in touch if you have anything to say about this project. I will take all criticism/encouragement/suggestions very seriously, as my cis-privilege means I should. Do feel free to pass this on to anyone you may feel would be interested, and follow this blog for further updates on this project – most of which won’t take off until October or afterwards, but yeah. So below is my proposal, as it was accepted:

Female to Male Transgender Transitions through the NHS – Addressing Policy Problems

There is no reason why psychiatrists and other mental health professionals cannot be charged with the responsibility of recognizing gender-identity issues without the necessity of labelling them as disorders.

Gianna E. Israel and Donald E. Tarver in Transgender Care: Recommended Guidelines, Practical Information and Personal Accounts

Research Context

Transgender people often experience an urgent need for medical treatment in order to facilitate a transition in gender presentation. Whilst data is lacking, it has been estimated that suicide risk in post-operative trans people is potentially seventy times higher than the risk for the overall US population (Haas et al. 2011), and suicide risk has been estimated at 19-25% for those seeking surgical gender reassignment (Dixen, Maddever, van Maasdam, Edwards, 1984). Whilst distress for trans individuals may result from the dissonance experienced between the mental and physical self (characterised as gender dysphoria), lack of support, as with any serious personal issue, may have an extremely detrimental effect on the individual’s ability to cope with their situation. This research will address medical (and legal) policy in the UK regarding transgender transition for AFAB (assigned female at birth) individuals. The reason for this particular focus is that treatment routes and transition difficulties are extremely different depending upon the direction of transition, and this focus will allow for both a wider consideration of AFAB experiences and greater depth of analysis. This research is particularly timely due to the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) being due for release in May 2013, which should have some ramifications for how gender identity dissonance is addressed clinically.

Currently there exists no specific gender and sexuality minority training as part of UK medical degrees or clinical training. This leads to primary care physicians often being ill-equipped to deal with the needs of trans patients – and in some cases directly doubting or dismissing the patient’s needs, resulting in risk of harm. Of the knowledge of transgender issues amongst the primary care medical population, much is extensively pathologising. This is due to the historical status quo of the power dynamic between doctor and patient, whereby medical ‘expertise’ trumps lived experience and identity (Cohen-Kettenis and Friedemann, 2010). Similarities can be seen with the discourse generated by the reversal of knowledge/power relations between the medical establishment and HIV positive gay men in the 1980s, who also often had a more detailed grasp of their options and needs than their physicians did (Weeks, 1990). However, a key difference is the grassroots push towards recognition by the medical establishment that trans* identities are not inherently pathological – as reflected partially by the upcoming revisions to theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-V). ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ will henceforth be understood as ‘Gender Dysphoria’, and ‘Transvestic Fetishism’ as ‘Transvestic Disorder’.

Relating to the Literature

Whilst the crux of this project will be the analysis of qualitative data generated by interview schema (as detailed in the methodology section), it will be important to further contextualise individual’s experiences in terms of queer theory. This will provide evidence of the extent of cissexist positions and behaviour within gatekeepers and other positions of social authority, and the social context of how this has come to be the case. Cissexism (the belief and treatment of transgender people as inferior to non-trans people) within society has already been considered by such important authors as Julia Serano and Riki Wilchins. It is also important to consider that in the formation of policy concerning gender and health, a binary model of gender is likely to be utilised, which may not provide recognition of the identities of all individuals who wish to transition (Bilodeau, 2005). The way in which any individual’s behaviour patterns (such as a doctor to a patient) are externally effected will depend upon the local cultures, geographies and other individuals they find to be their environment (Stevens 2004). A nuanced understanding of this may be aided by consideration of Social Identity Theory (Tajfel, 1981) and concepts such as dramaturgy – The idea that human actions are dependent upon where, when, and with whom they occur (Goffman, 1959).

Feminist epistemology will be used to address the intersection of patriarchal oppression (particularly when presenting as female) and trans identities, such as with the ‘border wars’ of butch lesbian, transmasculine and trans male identities (Halberstam 1998), transition from one group to another and how this can impact upon support networks and involvement in (for example) female-only spaces.

Research Questions

A key question of the thesis will be how and why did undesirable scenarios experienced by trans men happen? It is recognised that demand is greater than supply regarding appointments with NHS gender identity clinics, with 22% of users in October 2006 of the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic waiting over a year for a first appointment (Reed, Rhodes, Schofield and Wylie, 2009). Patients are required to have two meetings at such a clinic before being granted access to hormonal treatment, and the desperation and loss of morale that can accumulate in this time can result in risky self-medication using the internet to purchase hormones, self-harm, and suicide. The research will explore the space that exists between medical claims that may exist for the importance of the current framework that governs these appointments and the demands for improvement and change vocalised by the trans male population.

Other questions include asking to what extent may dissatisfaction with the medical establishment be a lack of detailed understanding of well founded (as opposed to well-intentioned but ultimately flawed) commitment to the well-being of patients? To what extent is the current medical establishment policy built on subtle cissexist assumptions and responses? A common argument for example, for the extent of hoops that need to be jumped through is that treatment with testosterone has certain irreversible physiological changes, and that protection must be offered to those who may ‘change their minds’, and be later caused distress and dysphoria by the retrospective treatments. The cisgender (to hold the same gender identity as was assigned at birth) perspective of how traumatic it would be to have one’s physiological gender markers (voice, fat distribution, breast tissue, musculature, etc.) altered in an undesirable way is arguably given a greater sense of importance than the provision to the treatment of trans people is (Taylor, 2010). It is considerably easier for a cis person to empathise with the former hypothetical scenario than it is with a trans person’s lived experience. The negative impact of undesirable physical traits is not at issue, but the insidious way in which what one is born with (or without) can be afforded a privileged position over the need for change.



This project will have a multi-faceted and interdisciplinary approach, utilising both empirical data and queer theory to synergistically explore the reality of trans experiences and the political and social frameworks within which these exist and are shaped. The precedent for transgender activism leading to a revision of policy is the framework upon which I will build this thesis. Through qualitative methodologies such as semi-structured interviews and surveying, I will collect and analyse accounts of trans men’s experiences with both NHS and private medical establishments, paying particular attention to delays and dissatisfactions with prescription to testosterone and approval for surgical procedures.

Whilst the focus of this project would be the experiences of self-defined male experiences, I believe it is also important to cross-examine such data with the experiences and knowledge (or lack thereof) of both primary and secondary care medical practitioners regarding their practice and knowledge of both transgender treatment provisions and what may be termed political considerations, such as pronoun usage and the phrasing of questions, and their necessity and appropriateness. Collecting qualitative data from staff who are involved with any of the administrative processes which dictates a trans person’s trajectory through medical systems may also prove valuable, though whether this direction is taken or not may be informed by information gathered from trans reports. Recognition and treatment of those AFAB individuals with non-binary gender identities is also to be involved. Whilst medical transition processes and lived experiences do vary in a clear and divisible way based on assignation at birth (before consideration of intersexed individuals at any rate), the social model of binary genders is being increasingly recognised as a dissatisfactory lens through which to view the wide spectra of queer identities which have gained visibility over the last fifty years (Hubbard, 1996). It is a common conception by many trans people that in order to achieve the (variable) desired end-goals of engagement with the medical establishment, a favourable narrative may need to be constructed in order to be considered ‘right’ (Rubin, 2003).

Policy Implications

“I just want a therapist who ‘gets’ me. I don’t want to have to explain gender, sex, and all that other stuff. I have been to so many therapists where I have to educate them. I have to tell them first that I am not a ‘freak’. Then, I have to make sure they feel comfortable. And then we get down to my real issues.” – Luke, 21 year old transgender man

Handbook of Multicultural Counselling Competencies, Erickson Cornish J. A. et al.

The ultimate goal of the project is to offer a rigorous academic approach to both assessment of the efficacy of systems designed to alleviate suffering, whilst also exploring important questions of identities and power. The ramifications of such work would hopefully lead to policy review such that trans voices and experiences are better heard by medical establishments. Systems for recognising cissexism in policy (or where it could be enacted by free agents in positions of authority) can be created and used in protection from and prevention of cissexism, for transgender populations. This work will provide a rigorous, empirical approach to policy formation that will help provide a greater voice for an often poorly understood minority, undeniably improving lives.


Biloeau, B. (2005) ‘Beyond the Gender Binary: A Case Study of Two Transgender Students at a Midwestern Research University’, Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education, Vol. 3, Issue 1

Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., Friedemann, P., (2012) ‘The DSM Diagnostic Criteria for Gender Identity Disorder in Adolescents and Adults’. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 39:499-513.

Erickson Cornish J. A. et al. (2010), Handbook of Multicultural Counselling Competencies, John Wiley & Sons.

Dixen, J. M., Maddever, H., van Maasdam, J., Edwards, P. W., (1984). Psychosocial characteristics of applicants evaluated for surgical gender reassignment. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 13(3), 269-276.

Goffman, E. (1959), ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. Anchor books.

Haas, A. P. et al. (2011), Suicide and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Populations: Review and Recommendations. Journal of Homosexuality, 58:10-51.

Halberstam, J. (1998) Female Masculinity, Duke University Press.

Hubbard, R. (1996) Gender and Genitals: Constructs of Sex and Gender, No. 46/47, Science Wars, pp. 157-165.

Reed, B., Rhodes, S., Schofield, P., and Wylie, K. (2009) Gender Variance in the UK: Prevalence, incidence, growth and geographic distribution, GIRES.

Rubin, H. (2003) Self-Made Men – Identity and Embodiment Among Transsexual Men, Vanderbilt University Press.

Serano, J. (2007) Whipping Girl – A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press.

Stevens, R. A. (2004), ‘Understanding Gay Identity Development Within the College Environment’, Journal of College Student Development, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 185-206.

Tajfel, H. (1981), ‘Human Groups and Social Categories: Studies in Social Psychology’, Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, E. (2010) ‘Cisgender privilege: on the privileges of performing normative gender’, in Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation by Bornstein, K. and Bergman, S. B., Seal Press.

Weeks, J. (1990) Coming Out, Quartet Publishing.

Wilchins, R. (2004), ‘Queer Theory, Gender Theory’. Alyson books, Los Angeles.

“The analytical category of gender presents particular methodological difficulties. Discuss.”

For those who found the last post to be a case of ‘tl; dr’, sorry that I’m simply putting up another essay again. In this one I discuss scientific methodology, and tensions between this and postmodern thinking, and feminist criticism of positivism.


This was written by 16th March 2011.


Every academic field has methods that are conventionally considered acceptable for use within that field. The use of unconventional methods ranges in acceptance and frequency in a field dependent manner, and broadly speaking the most ‘rigid’ research areas may be the so-called ‘hard’, or natural sciences. Here, the only acceptable methodology is the scientific method, deviation from which results in loss of scientific status. Science cannot progress without the collection of empirical data in a controlled and repeatable manner, which provides objective information on a given hypothesis or model. Models that are supported by evidence are only held with for as long as the evidence supporting it remains the best available. When better evidence becomes available, the model must be either modified or replaced. Models may exist that independently are supported well in the explanation of part of a system, but when considered together are not compatible. Two areas of physics (using this same methodology, but different methods) which blossomed during the twentieth century are quantum mechanics – the mathematical underpinnings of matter and energy on very small scales, and general relativity – which provides a description of gravity on very large scales. Whilst work done in both these fields are (now) uncontroversial and entirely embraced by the scientific community, these models of the behaviour of the universe break down when attempts are made to integrate them. The point I am making with this example is that the very nature of the knowledge we create through the use of different methods can result in total incompatibility with knowledge created in another way, even when the methods themselves are not particularly controversial – which of course is not necessarily even a stability that can always be relied upon in some areas.

Due to its multidisciplinary nature, the field of gender studies arguably attracts as many different methodologies as any given discipline can reasonably justify. There are scientists utilising quantitative methods resting on a positivist philosophy, social scientists using a range of quantitative and qualitative methods, and theorists who may use hermeneutics, discourse analysis or post-structural thought, to highlight some important examples. These different methods can be regarded as a toolbox, providing different analytical advantages and disadvantages which may be considered dependent upon both the researcher and the research question. Methodology is dependent on ideology (Keller 1985, p. 126), and thus the scientist approaching gender may completely reject the position of the poststructuralist and vice versa despite consideration of the same questions, using methods accepted within their respective fields. Such methods are both clearly used to explore questions about gender. The methodologies used within these schools of thought rest on different philosophical axioms which will be considered through the lens of gender in this essay, in order to examine their effectiveness and interplay. Consideration of the problems academic supporters of each of these methodological camps (natural sciences and post-structuralism) have with each other will be used to expose the weaknesses of each position. The defences of each position along with amalgamation of theoretical strengths will be then used to cross-examine the problematisation of methodology, using research done on gender as case studies.

Dispute over the validity of scientific methodology is not only seen when researchers use this school of thought directly to try and answer questions in the field of gender studies, but has indeed been critiqued more generally by some feminists who have argued that the scientific community, through being male dominated for centuries, is a construction of the patriarchy and that: “Traditional research contains more or less concealed expressions of sexism in its focus, its linguistic usage and its results. In this way the asymmetrical gender relations in society are legitimated and reproduced” (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2000, p. 210). Methods can therefore be problematized both when ‘science is done to gender’ and when ‘gender is done to science’. Before discussing real examples of methods used in scientific gender based research, it is worth further discussing what science actually ‘is’, what questions it can hope to answer, and how this relates to gender. This clearly involves very large philosophical and subjective questions that perhaps interestingly one doesn’t need to consider in order to do ‘good science’ (based on the fact that many successful, well published and well regarded scientists never explicitly address such questions within their careers).

The Nobel Prize winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger claimed that the two fundamental axioms of science is that ‘nature’ is both objectifiable, and knowable (Schrödinger 1967, quoted in Keller 1985 p. 141). The existence of facts or truths about the world is taken to exist independently of the consideration of any consciousness. It is understood that by collecting data in a manner that is independent from influence by the person collecting it, one does not subvert the results which arise from analysis of this data. It can be argued that for any topic on which empirical data can be collected and analysed in order to test predictions about the world, science can be done. In the natural sciences, the data that is collected is restricted to the ‘material’ (rather than the ‘social’ – this rather problematic distinction will be returned to later). Examples of two scientists who have used such a methodology related to the field of gender are Melissa Hines and Simon Baron-Cohen.

In Hines’ book Brain Gender, a large deal of scientific literature and experimentation is reviewed in order to attempt to answer whether biological factors contribute to behavioural sex differences and what the ramifications of this may be. The discussion references cognitive sex differences on measures of visuospatial abilities (Hines 2004, p. 12), and it has been shown that differences between the sexes may be large or negligible depending upon what abilities are specifically tested. Whilst this information on its own doesn’t bring us closer to answering Hines’ questions, it is possible to argue that the methods being used are indeed appropriate, and may be part of the construction of answers. Ability at particular tests done by men and women are quantifiable and analysable – objectifiable and knowable. The same can be said of doses of hormone and the physiological responses to such, which Hines also considers by studying how sex typical reproductive behaviour in the rat is affected (Hines, 2004 p. 47). The analysis of animal models is a standard and heavily used method of learning about human biological systems due to huge overlap as a result of evolutionary processes.

Fascinatingly, it has been shown that sex differences can be observed in non-human primates through toy preferences (Alexander and Hines, 2002). This provides evidence for a non-social component due to the animals having neither prior experience of the toys nor being influenced by peers or environment. Whilst there is clearly scope for further work to be done this has implications for a great number of gender based questions concerning the interplay of the biological and the social in men and women.

The use of scientific methods can also be constructive in disproving commonly held gender-based misconceptions. For example it is a commonly held social conception that high levels of testosterone result in increased aggression. However, in Hines’ discussion, a metaanalysis demonstrates a small correlation which may itself be overstated due to there being evidence to suggest that positive findings may be overrepresented (Hines, 2004 p. 135). This highlights a problem with the concept of peer review, which will be returned to when critiquing the use of scientific methods.

If obeying a positivist philosophy, then claims that this is so problematized as to deny useful conclusions to be drawn may be considered solipsistic. However there is great academic scope for multiple levels of problematisation as related to gender which shall now be further explored.

Methods, broadly speaking may be thought of as being systematic processes by which data are collected and then analysed. But what if your data are statements, arguments, or even other methods? Post-structuralism provides tools for doing this by the deconstruction of arguments which can allow new information to be revealed or new conclusions to be drawn, which hidden or ignored biases in the existing methodology don’t account for. Post-structural thought could potentially be regarded as anti-methodological (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2000, p. 184) however I would argue whilst being used systematically to problematize other methods; it unavoidably becomes a methodology itself with paradigmatic and syntagmatic analysis examples of methods used within semiotics and deconstruction (Prasad 2005, p. 99). The central ideas that the ‘self’ as well as elements of society (including sex and gender) are socially constructed as well as the importance of what a reader understands from a piece of work in contrast to what the writer necessarily intends are of great importance.

So why deconstruct scientific methods when the logic – that is, to control extraneous variables and not allow the quest for truth to be coloured by personal biases – may appear to be an effective way to answer questions of gender, particularly given that there are results that have independently been found to be repeatable? Because it can be argued that despite best intentions and efforts (that are never always going to be there in every piece of work), political, cultural and social influences will insidiously impact upon the scientific enterprise (Begley, 2001 p. 114). An example relevant within gender studies is how the model of human conception has changed over the past fifty years. It was once thought that the sperm was the ‘active’ and the egg the ‘passive’ agent in conception. Language used within the literature on this topic reflected this and was clearly influenced by social parallels drawn from preconceptions of the ‘male’ and the ‘female’ despite research existing which demonstrated active roles for the egg cell (Begley, 2001 p. 117). Larger scale historical examples where hindsight has demonstrated that attempts at a scientific enterprise were clearly distorted by personal beliefs and preconceptions include the damage done by the field of eugenics, and the rise of the anti-Mendelian ‘Lysenkoism’ of the Soviet Union in the 1930s (National Academy of Sciences 2001, p. 112).

Furthermore, one might argue that it is in fact impossible to separate the biological from the social. As Hines herself says “All of our psychological and behavioural characteristics, however, have a biological basis within our brain. No matter whether hormones or other factors, including social factors caused us to develop in a certain way, the hormonal or social influences have been translated into physical brain characteristics, such as neurons, synapses, and neurochemicals. Thus, the distinction between biological and social/cultural causes is false.” (Hines, 2004, p. 213-4). Given that the social must be experienced through the material in the two-pronged sense that all thought originates in the complex but materially finite brain, and all experience of the world is through biological, sensory perception. There are thus good arguments suggesting that science attempting to stand independently in the production of new information is at best hampered and at worst fundamentally flawed.

The monolithic monopoly on being able to effectively create knowledge through scientific methods is thus well challenged given that social context can change the results discovered. This may be a problem with the cognitive visuospatial sex differences discussed by Hines, as according to one of the very metaanalyses she references “partial support was found for the notion that the magnitude of sex differences has decreased in recent years…it was found that the age of emergence of sex differences depends on the test used” (Voyer et al. 1995). Given that the differential biology between men and women have not changed over this time frame, and that there has been no clear methodological upheaval in more recent studies being done, it is implicit that the change in the magnitude of the results is a result of the time and cultural attitudes the studies were performed in.

There are a number of responses that defendants of the methods used to collect the data presented in Brain Gender may argue. Firstly and most obviously, empirical results are real. Deconstruction may allow for greater understanding of problems that may be inherent in research, but the explicit results of scientific research that have been shown to accurately model elements of the world including relevant issues to gender (our understanding of physiological differences, for instance). It is important to recognise that peer review exists in order to attempt to catch such methodological problems. Also when utilising a scientific methodological approach, one is really attempting to create models that usefully reflect the world, rather than necessarily state an essentialist truth about the world which can be readily problematized.

Historical context is also important to better appreciate how gender and methodology are related, by considering past interaction and discussion that has gone on between the scientific community and post-structuralists (Oakley 1998, p. 708). The 1990s saw a series of intellectual arguments known as ‘the science wars’, involving the criticism of scientific objectivity by post-structuralists, with the rebuttal by the scientific community that their critics lacked both intellectual rigour, and an understanding of what they were critiquing. An important event was the ‘Sokal affair’, whereby a professor of physics was successful in getting an article published in a post-structural journal despite then revealing that he was testing to see if they would: “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions” (Sokal, 1996). This clearly problematizes post-structural criticism as a method of academia with forward motion a great deal. It is commonly argued that post-structuralism has a lack of constructivity, and does not offer alternative explanations to the hypotheses which it problematizes. As a result of this, it clearly isn’t a methodology that can exist independently. In order to have meaning, the deconstruction that is posited must have a structure to act upon which is near exclusively the result of alternative methods.

By beginning a deconstructive critique with the a priori assumption that the structuralist position is inherently flawed can result in a lack of engagement with the position under scrutiny. This can lead to misunderstandings and oversimplification of the subject matter at hand leading to a far less convincing and less useful output. For example, the argument that has been put forward suggesting that ‘science is the masculine’, ‘nature is the feminine’, and that knowledge acquired by science from nature is a form of rape (Oakley 1998, p. 709) and that subsequently Newton’s Principa Mathematica can be characterised as a ‘rape manual’ (Begley 2001, p. 115) demonstrate a lack of engagement with the purpose or methodology of science, whilst simultaneously abusing the sensitive term ‘rape’ in a manner that does not empower or usefully critique. Such dramatic language use is also likely to inspire a (deliberate) reaction in readers, which is another important dimension related to all methodologies which will be returned to.

Having discussed the work of Hines, the way in which scientific methodology can be used to study gender can be better understood by a comparative examination of the work of another scientist and his work’s implications and problematisations within gender studies – Simon Baron-Cohen. The premise of his book The Essential Difference examines the theory that: “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems” (Baron-Cohen 2003, p. 1). Baron-Cohen’s methodology rests upon the use of two tools which he is responsible for creating, the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and the Systemizing Quotient (SQ). These are questionnaires where points are scored dependant on answering ‘strongly agree/disagree’ or ‘slightly agree/disagree’ to a range of questions of which some are scored for positive answers, some are scored for negative answers, and some do not affect the final score of the test at all. The results that he has found show that on the SQ, people with autism score higher on average than men who score higher on average than women. On the EQ this pattern is reversed. How then, is this methodology problematized by the analytical category of gender?

Firstly, the way in which language is used to express the research is somewhat problematic. The summary on the back cover of The Essential Difference begins with “At last, leading psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen confirms what most of us have long suspected: male and female brains are different”. Then on page 8 of the book, the subtitle “Your Sex Does Not Dictate Your Brain Type” is used. If sex does not dictate brain type (in that the differences he is referring to are statistical averages, thus allowing for the existence of, within his model, women with ‘very male’ brains and vice versa) then this raises the question of why he has chosen to refer to the brain types as ‘male’ and ‘female’ given this clearly obfuscates his point. This requires him to explicitly demonstrate to his readers that he is aware of and receptive to the need of “not perpetuating the mistaken attitudes of former generations by assuming that sex differences imply that one sex is inferior overall” (Baron-Cohen 2003, p. 10). Demonstrating this is clearly no bad thing,  however it can be argued that it is at best an ‘unscientific’ (that is, obviously subjectified) approach to discuss the hypotheses in these terms. The choice of language on the back cover was clearly designed to be simple and catchy, to increase the appearance of significance and therefore readership, and status.

Baron-Cohen’s methods are also critiqued by other scientists. An alternative model has been proposed with ‘Machiavellianism’ and EQ offered as a more accurate dichotomy than EQ/SQ (Andrew, Cooke and Muncer 2007). It is argued that the EQ and SQ have “not been strongly validated”, and that “the relationship between empathising and systemizing is still unresolved”. Some of the criticisms levied against the EQ/SQ model are not particularly complex. For instance: “One would expect that if these were two contrasting cognitive styles that showed such a clear pattern then there would be a negative relationship between them. This has certainly been proposed by Baron-Cohen, but seldom strongly supported by research which has generally shown a weak negative correlation between the two styles. Furthermore, some research using other proposed methods of measuring systemizing and empathizing has found no significant correlation.” (Andrew, Cooke and Muncer 2007).

These are problems that if truly using an objective approach, one might expect Baron-Cohen to address more explicitly, however the reasons this does not happen are easy to understand. All academics clearly have a vested interested in the value of their research contribution due to impact on their reputations and by extension, career success. Discussion of further work needing to be done is common, but self-criticism of methods is very rare due to the fundamental uncertainty this then places on the value of the whole work. The process of peer review and intra-disciplinary competition does provide a policing of research to limit the impact of the avoidance of this level of self-criticism (which is not unique to natural scientists of course) however should the work being criticised have been written by someone ‘eminent’ and published in a ‘prestigious’ journal it is unlikely that the problematisation will receive as effective a voice on the academic landscape.  This may also be regarded as a problem from a feminist perspective when considering arguments that men may have more active and effective voices than women in many circumstances in society, which relates this problem directly back to gender.

What is most interesting methodologically is that whilst number of individuals taking the test, their sexes and their scores can all be quantified and analysed, how is the wording of the questions that form the main methodological tool performed ‘scientifically’? There is an implicit and unavoidable subjectivity here, and it is difficult to claim a firm authority on ability to do this. Gender further problematizes this question by the fact that all researchers are gendered, and arguably cannot disconnect their ‘selves’ from the words they choose to use in the construction of their methodological tools. Based on the discussion of post-structuralism that has already been engaged with this position may regard this only as a flaw or disadvantage; however there are potential benefits that this may also bring despite it being common that a lack of discussion occurs on such points within scientific literature. Scientists are not robots; by acknowledging that subjective traits that do not yield to rational analysis such as creativity, integrity and curiosity do influence research (National Academy of Sciences 2001, p. 111) constructive dialogue can be opened in order to create a more nuanced understanding, such that research validity isn’t jeopardised by neglect of such.

These critiques have partially alluded to an important approach in considering scientific methodology through a gendered lens – feminist epistemology. This approach (or approaches) involves examining the ways in which gender affects the acquisition of knowledge. There are a great many ways that feminist methodologies may be developed because there are a diverse number of branches of feminist theory (Rosser 2001, p. 126). An interesting dimension to the problematisation of scientific methodology are the different conflicts that can arise out of these positions, which will be related back to the work of Baron-Cohen and the potentially unavoidable subjectivity in science just discussed.

The first of these positions I shall consider is that of liberal feminism. A simple summary of this would be the belief that women suffer unjust treatment in society in comparison to men, and that this is unjust and equal consideration with regards to sex is a social ideal to be aimed for. There is no incompatibility with the hegemonic, objectivist approach to scientific research as ideally it is believed within this framework that gender biases in science can be consciously uncovered and removed (Rosser 2001, p. 129). It is not saying that science has successfully been performed in a de-gendered manner. A simple example would be a consideration of the social consideration of the hormones testosterone and oestrogen. Whilst both of these hormones are found in men and women with numerous and complex roles and effects, one is very much gendered as male and the other very much gendered as female, with a huge emphasis being placed on their roles in the development of secondary sexual characteristics. The reasons behind this could be explored, but from a social perspective it seems that due to the simplicity of this description and the fact that everyone learns this basic concept in secondary school biology, the trickle down of scientific research into education and the gendered implications this has results in a propagation of relatively ubiquitous and basic ‘engenderments’.

Sexism within the scientific community as a result of subjectivities connected to gender has been documented and studied. A paper published in the prestigious journal Science (claiming to have demonstrated that the corpus callosum in the human brain was larger in females than in males) was examined and shown to have methodological flaws by the neurophysiologist Ruth Bleier. She performed her own study, which, with conscious methodological improvements, resulted in no differences found. Her group’s paper was however rejected by Science, with a reviewer rejecting her arguments seemingly for tending “to err in the opposite direction from the researchers whose results and conclusions she criticizes” (Spanier 2001, p. 369). One might argue that whilst this may indicate problems already discussed with difficulty in criticising scientific results that have attained a position of privilege, it has been shown through empirical study and statistical analysis that nepotism and sexism exist within peer review (Wenneras and Wold 2001, p. 44). This raises the important point that it is demonstrable that both methods and methodologies that were created and near-exclusively used by men for a long period of history can be used by women to demonstrate clear evidence of need for adjustment to attain equality. I avoid saying ‘the need for the empowerment of women’ due to the potential for positive discrimination to result (in theory at least) merely an inversion of the problem. The crux of this evidence within a liberal feminist framework is the need for equality.

Baron-Cohen’s conclusions and assumptions have been faulted in detail on a methodological basis within what could be described as a liberal feminist framework (Nash and Grossi 2007). One might find it problematic that faults with work that (in theory) endeavours to remain objective is criticised on grounds that are immediately political in nature through a lack of relevant connection. However, concurrency and legitimisation are maintained by working within the same methodology as the research itself is performed under, which adds voice to the feminist position. Various books have been written which could be considered under this framework, including those which deal with Baron-Cohen’s work directly such as Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, and Pink Brain Blue Brain by Lise Eliot.

Marxist feminism is markedly different in that knowledge is viewed as a construct resulting from the human endeavour of production that is tied to a proletariat/bourgeois dichotomy. This creates a methodological space for the argument that research questions about both sex differences and biological causations of sexuality or gender identity would not be valid research questions if society was free from inequality (Rosser 2001, p. 131).

Essentialist feminism provides an interesting difficulty to be resolved philosophically and politically when considering gender research. This position is compatible with positivism, and holds that biological differences may mean that men are superior in some physical and mental aspects, and women are in others (Rosser 2001, p. 133). This can arguably lead to reinforcement of a potentially harmful and restrictive binary, though by focussing on the ways in which women are believed to be ‘superior’ to men may be useful in the empowerment of women within a patriarchal system. Obviously the interactions between methodology and this interpretation of feminism may be problematic because of the argument that this constructs barriers to individual freedom based on a socially constructed categorisation. Such ideas of social construction resulting in ‘othering’ as a result of social perception of biological differences (which alone don’t necessarily imply an inequality) are found within existentialist feminism which was explored by Simone de Beauvoir: “The enslavement of the female to the species and the limitations of her various powers are extremely important facts; the body of woman is one of the essential elements in her situation in the world. But that body is not enough to define her as woman; there is no true living reality except as manifested by the conscious individual thorough activities and in the bosom of a society. Biology is not enough to give an answer to the question that is before us; why is woman the Other?” (de Beauvoir 1974, p.51).

This range of categories of feminism makes methodology a difficult area to agree on, because the underlying principles vary significantly even if the general aims (equality for women) are the same. This highlights the importance of the relationship between philosophy, epistemology and methodology when considering research through a gendered lens. This remains true whether actively attempting to answer questions that directly contribute to gendered debates (sex differences, etc.) using scientific methods, or researching topics that are not obviously directly contributing to such debate but still have subjective elements which require conscious and careful language use and analysis to avoid contributing to any level of patriarchal maintenance, repression or preconceived engendering. Some feminists believe that the use of quantified methods is not compatible within an honest and emancipated feminist research methodology. Ann Oakley discusses this in terms of objections against positivism, power and p-values (Oakley 1998, p. 710). In this discussion, Oakley deals with the unequal power distribution between the ‘knower’ or researcher, and ‘known’, the subject – who under a scientific method is properly made to be an ‘object’, arguably removing any agency. However qualitative methods which are sometimes held up as an alternative are subject to these same methodological difficulties, especially if considering any post-structural consideration of language problematisation. The underlying social reason that is given for these attitudes rather than a legitimate superiority/inferiority relationship between methodologies generally is that “Feminism needed a research method, a distinct methodology, in order to occupy a distinctive place in the academy and acquire social status and moral legitimacy” (Oakley 1998, p. 716). In other words, the field required its ‘niche’, in the same way that individual researchers require this in their field. Originality is the key to success and respect within the academy, and this must be achieved not just with subject but also with methodology to some extent.

There are therefore a great many ways in which difficulties can be encountered when considering even just quantitative methodologies and the analyses that may be applied to them in the consideration of gender. What it means to be ‘scientific’ is contentious before considering how language affects results, how unavoidable subjectivity can arguably permeate even the best controlled systems and work – but that fortunately if one can utilise a multifaceted and open approach, engaging quantitative methodology in dialogue with political and social theory can be constructive rather than irrelevant or overcomplicated. Self-expression is as much a part of science as competently collecting one’s data is.  All published academics must consider how to do this, yet this is a stage of the research process that can go relatively un-critiqued despite arguably being strengthened by a systematic element of the consideration of the implications of how and what is being said. This could potentially be regarded as the invisible element of methodology, though this provides good evidence for the usefulness of criticism of methodology from outside of the immediate community or system. Ironically enough then, despite the sometimes polemical or highly subjectively motivated attacks that have occurred on and between quantitative scientific methodologies, post-structural thought and feminist methodologies, the exchanges temper and strengthen all of these so that the complete toolbox can be used to more convincingly express understandings of the world.


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What is the Relevance of one’s Legal Gender?

Hey all – sorry for the large hiatus. Due to personal family reasons there isn’t likely to be much activity for the immediate future, but I will be back to writing regularly eventually. In particular there are lots of new book reviews lined up.


Whilst I haven’t written anything *new* per se, for those who have an interest in gender through an academic lens, I am posting one of my essays from my Master’s Degree in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies. Sorry about the lack of pictures, I don’t think the examining panel would’ve approved. This was written in May 2011.


What is the relevance of one’s legal gender?

When asking about the relevance of one’s legal gender, one must address various questions that immediately lead from this. Some of these questions are legal in nature and others examine the social context within which the laws are made and executed. The most obvious place to start when asking about the relevance of one’s legal gender is to ask how does the law define one’s gender, and how does it distinguish this (if indeed it does at all) from one’s ‘sex’? One then needs to ask both how and when it is relevant for an individual to be placed in one legal category or another. How does the law deal with individuals whose categorisation is unobvious or contested for the purposes of making a decision for which the outcome varies based on the gender category of the individual in question? How are people who have changed legal category then treated by the law? And finally, is legal gender always relevant when scrutinised in legal proceedings, or indeed is legal gender ever ignored when it should not be? By addressing each of these questions in turn, not only are the factual ‘word of the law’ and the subjective way in which it is interpreted addressed, but the bigger picture of how legal, social and medical hegemony affect each other and come to shape what is accepted and therefore what is legislated is understood.

So how are sex and gender defined under the law? Under present UK law, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are recognised, and are indicated on UK birth certificates under the heading of ‘sex’ as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. This is used to define a person’s legal sex and gender. Whilst it is a legal requirement that births are registered within forty two days in England and Wales (Directgov, 2011) and that a child’s ‘sex’ is given, it is assumed rather than explicitly outlined that ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are the acceptable possible responses. It is worth nothing that whilst it is common for the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ to be used interchangeably in any given context, it is also common particularly in scholarly parlance for ‘sex’ to be used to refer to a person’s categorisation based on biology (broadly understood to refer to a composite understanding based on genital, gonadal and chromosomal sex, which has been increasingly recognised as problematic when considering intersex individuals in particular) and ‘gender’ to refer to a person’s social categorisation, which may rest more on self-definition and social visibility, that which is presented for others to see.

An important legal precedent was established by the case Corbett vs. Corbett heard in 1970. In this case, the husband of the male-to-female (MTF) transsexual April Ashley petitioned for nullity upon the breakdown of their marriage on the basis that as April was legally male the marriage was void (Whittle, 1999). Whilst at the time it was held for the purposes of matrimonial law that hormone treatment and surgery did not result in a legal change of sex, which was then cited in many forthcoming legal cases, this changed with the advent of the Gender Recognition Act 2004.Interestingly, whilst the entirety of this act is written in terms of gender, the terms gender and sex are not formally defined as part of the Act. However, it is specified that “Where a full gender recognition certificate is issued to a person, the person’s gender becomes for all purposes the acquired gender (so that, if the acquired gender is the male gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a man and, if it is the female gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a woman)” (Gender Recognition Act 2004). One might think therefore that once an individual has received a gender recognition certificate, they would be legally indistinguishable from members of the same sex who were born as such. However there are exceptions to this which means that some individuals can problematically find themselves with a currently legal and previously legal gender that are both still legally relevant. Specific examples of where this may occur will be discussed later.

The law then, in its current form rests upon a binary understanding of sex and gender. There are a wide range of different scenarios where membership of a particular category results in different treatment under the law, thus demonstrating legal relevance. Before discussing these scenarios it is important to establish the difference between legal and social relevance. It is well established that the treatment of men and women is socially unequal, as can be evidenced from observing pay gaps that endure between men and women by occupational group (Browne, 2006). These inequalities exist as a result of how individuals are observed, socially categorised and treated by others rather than by a word present on their birth certificate which affects their treatment under particular legal circumstances. Individuals who are observed as ‘woman’ are treated differently to those who are observed as ‘man’, but may or may not be treated in the same way under the law. For instance a male-to-female transsexual who ‘passes’ is likely to have on average ‘a woman’s’ social experiences (the precise meaning of which could receive detailed treatment but is not the focus here), which must therefore be independent of their legal gender – if they remain technically, legally, a man.

Therefore, legal gender is not particularly relevant when considering many questions of women’s rights and women’s treatment under the law. This rather is the relevance of one’s social gender in legal contexts. An example of this would be the treatment of women as flight attendants during the late 1960s and 1970s. Female employees were restricted in ways that male employees were not, which could include not wearing glasses, being unmarried, physical attractiveness, and being under the age of thirty-two (Rhode, 1989). The age and marriage rules resulted in many women leaving their jobs each year, preventing a fair proportion of women from reaching senior positions, thus being unable to reach higher pay brackets and senior staff pension schemes. This discrimination is clearly based on female aesthetic rather than legal gender, and whilst clearly unacceptable under modern legal frameworks, if legally challenged would not need to consider legal gender in successfully arguing illegal sexism. Women are considerably more likely to be the victims of domestic violence, sexual assaults and rape (Walker, A., Kershaw, C., and Nicholas, S., 2006), but this is crime against individuals that is a product of their social rather than legal category as demonstrable by the successful socialisation within the desired gender by transsexuals (who successfully ‘pass’, and are not criminally targeted as a result of their trans status). If a female plaintiff makes a legal case of sexual harassment, it would not be usual practice to scrutinise her legal gender in order to ascertain whether the case was valid. It is chiefly where social and legal genders are not the same, or were once not the same (in the case of transsexual and transgendered people) and where sex does not readily fit into the binary (intersex people) that scrutiny of legal gender becomes most relevant.

There are still many important ways in which legal decisions vary based on a person’s legal gender, and a case with many relevant examples is that of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom, at the European Court of Human Rights in 2002. Whilst this case occurred before the major change seen by the instigation of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, the case still highlights the relevance of legal gender in several key ways than can be related to current law and to social theory.

In this case, Ms. Goodwin was successful in claiming breaches occurred of articles 8 and 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which are respectively the rights to respect for one’s private and family life, home and correspondence, and the right to marry and found a family. There were three key claims that were the basis of her case. Firstly,that the UK Government had not taken any steps to address the suffering experienced by post-operative transsexuals despite international court warnings to keep this under review. Secondly, rapid changes in regards to the social attitude towards transsexuals were taking place worldwide, and thirdly that discriminatory legislature regarding pension age and access to her NI number by her employee lead to significant distress and difficulty (Council of Europe, 2002). The European court’s response shows agreement that aspects of UK legislature were unsatisfactory by this time at dealing with social reality relative to trans people’s legal gender. By making the points that: “The stress and alienation arising from a discordance between the position in society assumed by a post-operative transsexual and the status imposed by law which refused to recognise the change of gender cannot, in the Court’s view, be regarded as a minor inconvenience arising from a formality”, “The Court is struck by the fact that nonetheless the gender re-assignment which is lawfully provided is not met with full recognition in the law” and “it appears illogical to refuse to recognise the legal implications of the result to which the treatment leads” (Council of Europe, 2002), demonstrates the necessity for legal gender to be harmonious with an individual’s (chosen and observed) social gender in all ways in order to avoid obvious inconsistencies leading to unequal treatment. Legal gender then, is highly relevant in the sense that there are many medical and professional contexts where one can be demanded to provide one’s legal gender. How necessary this is may be controversial, but due to being the reality which may impact heavily on an individual’s right to privacy, the relevance is undisputable. Yet, the requirements and responsibilities of individuals remain poorly defined. This point is well made by Whittle when he says: “If the trans man were born outside of Britain then his identity in each of these areas of the law would be dependent upon the nation state he was born in. yet the trans man would be classified on his driving licence (through the codification system) as a man. But what if the trans man is required to give his ‘sex’ to the court as he is facing a driving disqualification? Presumably the purpose of that disclosure is to ensure that the driving licence records of the correct person are marked up. Should he say he is a man or male, or should he say he is a woman or female? What is the requirement of the law, which would ensure that the correct person has his or her driving records amended? It is no defence to a criminal act to argue that you had no knowledge of the law or that you did not understand it” (Whittle, 1999). This also raises the question of how ‘relevant’ does legal gender have to be in order to justify a requirement for disclosure? There is no simple answer to this, but one could potentially argue that in the case of a driving offence, simpler alternative ‘non-gendered’ alternative records of identification could be used.

The Court also considered the potential significance of medical and scientific perspectives in the legal recognition of transsexuals. Whilst it was concluded that medical science did not offer any determining argument (Council of Europe, 2002) it highlights the fact that the law uses the medical and scientific perspective, and may offer this perspective a position of privilege in making judgements that then impact upon the social world. Certainly this method was used by Judge Ormrod in the creation of his sex determination text used in the Corbett vs. Corbett case, consisting of a consideration of the chromosomal, gonadal and genital features of an individual at birth (Whittle, 1999). This reflects the Foucaultian point made in The History of Sexuality that society regards minority issues of sexual orientation and identity through a medical lens (literally and figuratively), and that ‘knowledge’ of what ‘legal gender’ in this case is not set in terms of law and repression, but of power. The law does not look to sociologists for potential ‘truths’ to aid decisions which find legal gender to be relevant, but it is increasingly recognised that whilst hard science can present molecular fact about bodies, the social processing of such does not give a rational reason to infer decisive significance to that information. It can be argued therefore, that the Court in this case supported Ms. Goodwin’s claims of breaches of articles 8 and 12 due to her social experience as a trans-woman, and the behaviour of others as a result of this social experience resulting in the breaching of these articles, in spite of her legal gender at the time.

The difficulty that medical science can encounter when attempting to establish what an individual’s ‘real’ sex is for the purposes of treatment, law, and ultimately identity can be readily problematized. This is seen most clearly in the story of Agnes, whose treatment and narrative was published by Stoller and Garfinkel in the 1960s. Upon physical medical examination Agnes was seen to have female secondary sexual characteristics (hair pattern, breasts, fat distribution) but with male external genitalia, which resulted in her being identified as ‘male’ on her birth certificate, and treated and raised as male until late adolescence. She was found to have no uterus or ovaries, some atrophy of the testes, and moderately high female hormone activity.Agnes was also observed to present as a “120 per cent female” in terms of behaviour and identity, with a history suggesting not only typical but stereotypical female behaviours and attitudes such as passivity, coyness, avoidance of rough games, etc. (Garfinkel, 1967). It was concluded that Agnes was suffering from an unusual case of an already very rare condition, ‘testicular feminization syndrome’, whereby the testes produce oestrogen and ‘feminize’ the genetically male foetus – however in this case the possession of Agnes of a normal sized penis and testes remained present and relatively unexplained.

The fact that Agnes presented as she did convinced the medical establishment to allow and perform surgery in 1959 where: “the penis and scrotum were skinned, the penis and testes amputated, and the skin of the amputated penis used for a vagina where the labia was constructed from the skin of the scrotum”. This was incredibly unusual for the time given both social and legal contexts, and rested heavily upon Agnes’ ‘gendered performance’. It is interesting that in scrutinising whether Agnes was to be considered a ‘real’ woman and deserving of surgery, it was explicit that she must’ve experienced no sense of homosexual desire – that is, attraction to women, despite the irony that based on her legal gender, attraction to men would be homosexual, of course illegal at this time. It was still true once homosexuality was legalised that the medical establishment looked for “a distain or repugnance for homosexual behaviour” in trying to identify the ‘true transsexual’ (Billings and Urban, 1996). This attitude would be characterised by Butler as “the heterosexualisation of desire” (Butler, 1990). Individuals can be considered to be trapped by the social sex and sexuality chosen for, and required of them.It was also a matter of concern that it was unable to be ascertained that her penis was not used with erotic purpose (Garfinkel, 1967), as this would be seen as evidence with identifying with a ‘male’ sexuality. This is evidence that Agnes’ legal gender was not of huge relevance to the doctors, which makes sense given that it would be implicitly understood that given her unique physiology, this would provide a shallow understanding of her sex/gender that would not usefully allow them to ascertain a deeper ‘truth’. As said by Whittle: “A quick glance at birth determines whether a child has a penis of appropriate length. If it has, it is designated as a boy/man, if not, it is designated a girl/woman. Here in the UK, that cursory glance and the decision made as a consequence is transcribed onto the record of birth, and will remain with the child for ever more. The sighting at birth will be the ‘citing’ for the remainder of life” (Whittle 2002). It may be considered somewhat worrying that being labelled with a legal identity that may have very real and complex consequences for a significant minority can be routinely made in such a fleeting and inexpert manner. That said, this is assuming that the categories available are even satisfactory in the first place!

The most crucial element to Agnes’ narrative is that she was able to receive legitimisation of her gender identity and be granted privileged access to the treatment required to ‘match’ the category of female as she so wished – by the fact that she lied. Agnes later revealed to her doctors that she had been taking oestrogens since the age of 12 (Garfinkel, 1967). By withholding this information, Agnes was capable of manipulating the medical establishment into providing her with social legitimisation. Given social context, people ‘suffering’ from intersex conditions were treated (both with pity, and medically), whilst ‘transsexuals’ and ‘transvestites’, whilst also pathologised, were degraded, blamed, and considered perverse. Social legitimisation, gained through passing in the desired category (of man or woman, strictly) was the chief goal, and has been the holy grail for trans people for longer than the term trans has even existed. This was far more relevant to Agnes’ experiences than her legal gender, as highlighted by the report of the attitude of Agnes’ family regarding her performance of her gender as female before and after medical legitimisation: “The aunt, said Agnes, reflected the attitude of other family members. This attitude, said Agnes, was one of gender acceptance prior to the trip to Midwest city [when she had lived as a boy], consternation and severe disapproval after the return [she ran away to attempt to live as a girl], and relieved acceptance and treatment of her as a “real woman after all” (Agnes’ quotation of the aunt’s remark) following the operation” (Garfinkel, 1967).

It can be said then, that Agnes was (really) a transsexual who was able to be successfully accepted as having indeed ‘always’ been a girl as she so claimed, rather than a boy who ‘became’ a girl. To have the sex/gender of desire accepted as the individual’s only reality is a common desire of many trans people. It has been pointed out that for many trans people, ‘success’ in one’s gender is to become entirely removed from the ‘trans identity’ – one is not a man who feels they are a woman, one is not a trans woman, one is a woman (or vice versa)! The limitation of legal gender as strictly relevant (it wasn’t for Agnes, as despite her success it was legally impossible at the time for the sex on her birth certificate to be altered)is challenged by Roz Kaveny who asks: “how does changing our birth certificates and passing and disappearing into the wider community free us from discrimination and oppression? Some bigots, some of the time, will spot us, or think they spot us, and be able to discriminate against us, or anyone else they think is one of us, with impunity, arguing in self-defence that they were doing no such thing. If there is no document that states who we are, our right not to be discriminated against as TS disappears. The possibility, or even probability, that someone passes most of the time is no defence for them on the rare occasions when they do not. You are only as safe as your roughest day” (Kaveny, 1999).

How relevant then is possession of a legal gender that does not accurately reflect one’s gendered life experience, especially when this problem is equally true for those who may indeed embrace their trans identity as more than transitional, and those who feel their intersexuality is not something that can be ‘vanished’ by ‘correction’ to one of the two available legal categories. This is concordant with the conclusions from the Goodwin case, in that it can be argued that to truly live without fear of judgement one needs a concurrency between legal and socially identified gender which can at best only be partially achieved within current legal categorisation.In her social discourse, Butler points out that “The binary regulation of sexuality suppresses the subversive multiplicity of a sexuality that disrupts heterosexual, reproductive, and medicojuridical hegemonies” (Butler, 1990). Indeed, as it is increasingly recognised that to be transgender and have one’s legal gender recognised as independent from one’s ‘birth biology’, the monopoly held by medical practitioners on what gender variance means is lessened. It is now no longer the case (in theory) that one under UK law must receive surgery to have one’s legal gender change recognised. However in practice a review board will take this into account when considering whether to approve an application for a gender recognition certificate particularly in the case of trans women (the surgery that may be undertaken by trans men is recognised as more complex with greater risk).The trans advocate group ‘Press for Change’ states that in regards to having reassignment surgery: “unless for reasons of health, it is not a good idea to simply say you do not want it. Better to state that you intend to have it in the future when the surgical waiting list has spaces” (Press for Change, 2011)

What is the relevance of one’s legal gender when possessing an intersex condition? Unless an individual can be placed into one legal gender category or another, one may encounter difficulties in receiving the rights of both or either categories. Within western culture, there has been a prevailing view that being ambiguous in sex is a dramatic problem, as highlighted by this quotation from a textbook on intersexual disorders published in 1969: “One can only attempt to imagine the anguish of the parents. That a newborn should have a deformity…[affecting] so fundamental an issue as the very sex of the child…it is a tragic event which immediately conjures up visions of a hopeless psychological misfit doomed to live always as a sexual freak in loneliness and frustration” (quoted in Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Given the incredibly dramatic language, it is somewhat surprising that this account does not directly justify its purple prose by mentioning that intersex disorders may be associated with some serious medical dysfunction. This is not always the case by any means, and it is worth saying that the term ‘intersex’ is used to refer to a wide range of conditions, many of which may remain undetected for an entire lifespan.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is quoted as having said “The reasoning behind this [early ‘corrective’] genital surgery is the need for a clear and unambiguous sex assignment to save intersex children from being ostracized and to enable parents to bond with their baby girl or boy” (quoted in Benatar, 2006). The assignment of intersex children to one legal gender category or another, and modifying surgery to better justify this regardless of whether or not there is a physiological need for this in terms of medical wellbeing is thus justified on social grounds, and reinforced by the legal requirement for a child’s sex to be declared.

The relevance of one’s legal gender can therefore be said to rest heavily on how social genders are viewed, because it is the view of society that is used to form legislature. Alison Shaw makes the point that “Sex and gender are not always either mutually exclusive or corresponding categories because ideas about the nature and significance of anatomical and physiological sex differences vary and can influence the rigidity or flexibility of gender categories and, conversely, the social significance of gender in any given context may in turn influence the ways in which biological differences are perceived” (Shaw, A., 2005). The fact that there is no straightforward biological test to show a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ that can’t be problematized through social discourse means that likewise a legal difference between ‘father’ and ‘mother’ is also problematic.

When it comes to parental status of trans people in the UK, there is no obvious or simple answer to the range of questions that may be asked. UK law maintains the categories of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ as distinct legal terms. Whilst both parents receive joint responsibility of a child that is born or adopted if the couple are married (or civilly partnered), should partners not have their relationship legally recognised parental responsibility is always given entirely to the ‘mother’. This presents the obvious problem of trans parents being registered as the ‘parent type’ that does not match their legal gender, and thus compromises their social treatment by the lack of the total recognition of their (new) legal gender as  their only legal gender. The argument that the mother is defined by ‘that parent which carries the child’ is rendered insufficient by the existence of both adoption and surrogacy. Parenthood is a scenario whereby legal gender is afforded more attention than can be justified – parental aptitude is not strictly sex/gender dependent nor would any court following equality frameworks claim such in the modern day. The legal categories of mother and father are arguably linguistic artefacts stemming from the social and psychological need of most individuals to categorise people by the binary gender system upon sight, or upon receiving information concerning a given individual.

Another example of where current legal gender and past legal gender may both be brought into question is in the context of military service. Whether a trans man would be called up on the basis of a new legal gender or a trans woman could be called on the basis of an old or unchanged one would depend upon the legal systems (and of course, social attitudes) of the country in question, but the most obvious problematisation would again be in a visible context. How would a barracks deal with an individual who appears and is judged to be female in every visible capacity, only contested actively by documentation? There is an interaction between the social and the legal in that, as we have seen, social categories lead to legislation, but the legislation leads to problematisation of the social, and vice versa. There will always be some level of problem with legislation on categories of sex and gender, due to the necessary black-and-white nature of the law. As Judith Butler puts it: “the notion that there might be a “truth” of sex, as Foucault ironically terms it, is produced precisely through the regulatory practices that generate coherent identities through the matrix of coherent gender norms…the cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of “identities” cannot “exist” – that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not “ follow” from either sex or gender” (Butler, 1990). Would the creation of further legal categories (trans, intersex, ‘other’, etc.) make legal gender more relevant to more individuals? Only in the sense that this logically goes hand in hand with social recognition. Legal recognition is quite separate from acceptance, as can be historically considered from the comments of Lord Arran at the third reading of the Sexual Offenses Bill in 1967 decriminalising homosexuality in the UK: “let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity. We shall always, I fear, resent the odd man out. That is their burden for all time” (Hansard, 1967). Whilst obviously discussing a different variation, Kaveny makes the related point that “It is less important to pass than to be accepted. If being transgendered is valued as a human variation, then many problems disappear. And it is more likely to be valued if we value it ourselves – being out and proud and prepared to defend ourselves is probably rather less risky than being in the closet, ashamed of our pasts and relying on a piece of paper” (Kaveny 1999). Legislation is an extension of social acceptance, affording people the rights afforded to others regardless of gender identity based on a liberal and rational society. This does not compromise the special protection and needs that individuals may require (for example, maternity leave for birth mothers who experience physical stress that requires remit and recovery time), as this may be provided in a manner that does not dictate and limit in a manner that restricts based on category but provides based on need.

To conclude then, what is the relevance of one’s legal gender? It is nothing if not dependent on a web of factors including location, personal identity, circumstances, and perhaps most importantly social context. Individuals are not ‘invisibled’ through lack of adequate legal category when there is no-one contesting those individuals legitimacy – often not merely to rights, but to existence, or at least visibility. An entirely positivist approach to answering questions of gender conclusively have been considered flawed as it has been “shown to be driven by the value-laden but unexamined presumptions of scientists themselves in numerous fields, especially medicine and human biology” (Carver 2007). As this medical justification was used for body policing in a thoroughly Foucaultian power-play, legal concession resulted in order for those outside of the gender hegemony to be silenced by inclusion in ‘normality’ and normativity. This ironically allowed a defence of gendered variance from within the normative system, which moves with social progression as further legal rights are demanded worldwide to solve questions of gender injustice. Legal gender will be relevant for as long as there are questions where legal (and therefore social) outcomes are contested by individuals based on personal rights and freedoms. It must be understood however that the impact of legal gender as a defence from social repression is limited, and does not have the impact on day to day existence as the willingness of the general public to accept difference.



Benatar, D., 2006, ‘Cutting to the Core: Exploring the Issues of Contested Surgeries’, p. 80

Billings, D. B. and Urban, T., 1996, ‘The socio-medical construction of transsexualism – an interpretation and critique’, in Ekins, R. and King, D., ‘Blending Genders – social aspects of cross-dressing and sex-changing’, p. 105

Browne, J. 2006, ‘Sex segregation and inequality in the modern labour market’, p. 11

Butler, J., 1990, ‘Gender Trouble’, p. 17

Butler, J., 1990, ‘Gender Trouble’, p. 19

Butler, J., 1990, ‘Gender Trouble’, p. 17

Carver, T., ‘‘Trans’ trouble – trans-sexuality and the end of gender’ in Browne, J., ‘The future of gender’, p. 129

Council of Europe, 2002, ‘Case of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom’, p. 17-18

Council of Europe, 2002, ‘Case of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom’, p. 22-23

Council of Europe, 2002, ‘Case of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom’, p. 24

Directgov website, legal information on registering and naming one’s baby: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Governmentcitizensandrights/Registeringlifeevents/Birthandadoptionrecords/Registeringorchangingabirthrecord/DG_175608

Fausto-Sterling, A., 2000, ‘Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality’, p. 47

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 3

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 24

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 36

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 7

Gender Recognition Act, 2004, section 9, subsection 1. Accessed at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/7/crossheading/consequences-of-issue-of-gender-recognition-certificate-etc

Hansard, The parliamentary debates, House of Lords official report, volume 285, p. 523

Kaveny, R., 1999, ‘Talking Transgender Politics’, in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 148-149


Press for Change website, accessed last on 2/5/11: http://transequality.co.uk/Legislation.aspx

Rhode, D., 1989, ‘Justice and Gender – Sex discrimination and the law’, p. 94

Shaw, A., 2005, ‘Changing Sex and Bending Gender: An Introduction’ in Shaw, A., and Ardener, S., ‘Changing Sex and Bending Gender’ – p. 3

Walker, A., Kershaw, C. and Nicholas, S. (2006) ‘Crime in England and Wales 2005-6’

Whittle, S., 1999, ‘The Becoming Man: The Law’s Ass Brays’ in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 18

Whittle, S., 1999, ‘The Becoming Man: The Law’s Ass Brays’ in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 19

Whittle, S., 2002, ‘Respect and Equality, Transsexual and Transgender Rights’, p. 5

Whittle, S., 1999, ‘The Becoming Man: The Law’s Ass Brays’ in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 28-9

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