PPPS: “Does the Government Need to Know Your Sex?”

Here is my contribution to this podcast symposium; I’d like to add my thanks to Simon May for organizing this online event.

In a number of states and countries, transgender activists and scholars are challenging the rules and regulations for altering one’s sex status on official documents and records.  In this presentation, I explore why each person must have an official or legal sex, and why these identities are subject to the control of our governments.

I include below links to an audio file, as well as presentation slides, with and without the same audio, so you can listen and read along at the same time.  I also include a link to the text of my presentation.   Lori Gruen’s helpful comments are linked below my text.

Presentation slides with embedded audio

Presentation slides without audio


Lori Gruen’s comments

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2 Responses to PPPS: “Does the Government Need to Know Your Sex?”

  1. I think this is a really interesting problem. I don’t have a well-worked out view in response at all, but I was wondering how much of the argument rests on considerations of transgender/intersex/gender-ambiguity cases.

    In other words, if it were the case — hypothetically — that sex identity were entirely unambiguous and unproblematic (all girls were biologically and socially female and all boys were biologically and socially male), might there still be a good argument against the state utilising official sex categories to differentiate the population? The argument against official racial categories does not rest on the existence of “racial ambiguity” but rather on the moral irrelevance of race, along with a background of racial oppression. And if we assume that sex identity is unproblematic, arguments about volition or control over identity would not have the same force.

    I suppose any such argument could be tempered or trumped by the need for information for e.g. sex discrimination issues. But I’m wondering whether there is anything inherently objectionable about the state categorising me as one sex or another in the way that I do think it is at least prima facie objectionable for the state to classify me as one rather than another.

    Privacy arguments have particular importance for me insofar as they identify threats to dignity (along with consequentialist concerns about how information may be misused). I can see how someone can be humiliated by state officials, and members of the public generally, in transgender and intersex cases. But if those cases were bracketed aside, I’m not sure if a threat to dignity ever arises because sex is recorded at birth as an official fact. I think this suggests to me that privacy is an important issue here because of the very specific issue of how some individuals might be humiliated as “freaks of nature,” and so on, and is not more generally a problem with state knowledge of an individual’s chromosomes or genitalia.

    But I’m not sure why I would then think of race and sex differently, especially since we can have the same arguments for knowledge of race/ethnicity on e.g. medical and discrimination grounds.

  2. Here are a couple quick responses (before I need to leave for a meeting…)

    Both Gruen and May raise the issue of privacy, and whether the government invades our privacy when it requires information from parents or a hospital about an infant’s sex before issuing a birth certificate. Often intersex conditions are not detected at birth, for example an xy girl with female genitals may simply be recorded as female. So even in cases that initially appear unambiguous, the assignment of sex can be socially and medically complicated. I suppose if the government had a good reason for requiring this information, then we might accept the imprecise and simple mechanisms the government uses for classifying infants, as well as the burdens faced by those wrongly classified. But I don’t find the alleged governmental purposes sufficient to justify the government’s ability to access medical information (e.g., a physician’s judgment about an infant’s genitals). Perhaps what the government needs to know is how the parents intend to raise the child (as a girl or boy) in order to issue a birth certificate, and it’s still not clear to me that this information belongs on the certificate itself. Many states now ask parents for their ethnicity on the forms requesting a birth certificate, but this information doesn’t appear on the child’s birth certificate.

    Gruen raises the issue of pronouns and the difficulty we have in speaking when we do not know a person’s sex identity. This is a genuine problem, but a practical one that I think can be managed. At one point, many thought it was necessary to know a woman’s marital status before she could be addressed or mentioned (Mrs., Miss…), but many of us have learned to use Ms. instead. Linguistic reform initially seems awkward and silly, but it can be achieved, and shouldn’t be dismissed if there are good reasons for it.

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