But There’s a Box; It Must Be Checked

Among the phenomenon that is perpetually amusing is that when handed a form, people will fill it out.  It doesn’t matter what it asks for, the relevance to the purpose of the form to the question. If there’s a blank line, people write on it. If there’s a box people check it.  Because if they don’t, the sky will fall and society will come crashing down around their head.

At the New York Times Room for Debate, the question was posed whether checking the “sex” box is necessary:

New York City is considering a proposal that would make it easier for people to change their sex on their birth certificates. Other countries have grappled with this, and several federal agencies and states have adopted similar policies.

But why should government recognize individuals’ sex? Is there a legal need to distinguish among females, males and others?

While I wasn’t there when the first man (deliberate gender choice) told his secretary (who was female, not to mention a graduate of the Katherine Gibbs School, because that’s what all secretaries were back then) to prepare a form for the use of his office at vital statistics to record the birth of children, I imagine the conversation happening like this:

Male:  Sweetheart, put together a form for people to fill out when they have a baby.

Female:  Yes, sir. What should it include?

Male: I dunno, the usual stuff I guess. Name of the parents, kid, date of birth, that sort of stuff.

Female:  What about the sex of the child?

Male: Sure. Why not?

And that was that.  Since then, the form included gender because, well, it always included gender. Nobody questioned why it would, or should, but it did. And so it was written in stone.  Much of our world happens that way, for no particular reason.

Why should the government care whether a child is categorized as male, female, or anything else that’s on the list of 28 gender descriptions that are now suddenly popular? Why is there a list at all?

An ironic argument in favor of maintaining government tracking of gender is offered by BU lawprof Linda McClain:

Whether it’s male, female or other, there are legitimate reasons for using the category of “sex”; indeed, one powerful reason is to document, and fix, gaps in equality. Girls and women still experience discrimination and disadvantage on the basis of sex.

To document discrimination so it can be fixed, it should be perpetuated.  Arizona gender studies prof Susan Stryker offers an opposing view:

Should the government legally distinguish between sexes? I think not. This is not to deny that bodies have different biological capacities, or to assert that all bodies are alike, but rather to point out that sex classification undergirds unequal access to employment, marriage, parental rights, inheritance and many social services — to name a few of the consequences of creating two distinct legal categories of personhood.

This perspective hits on one immutable reality: we come with whatever equipment we come with, regardless of what anyone wants to call it.  If somebody chooses to swap out original equipment for something they prefer, so what? The new equipment will be whatever it will be, categorization be damned.  Only a grocery clerk would find the checked box more real than breasts or a penis.

Then there’s the fashionable view, that rejects reality in favor of their personal political fantasy:

Choosing a sex using traditional choices sends a child’s life down one or the other path: male or female. But this sex binary ignores everything contemporary science knows about sex, namely that many factors of sex difference — chromosomal, genital and hormonal — make sex a far richer set of possibilities than just male or female.

It’s unlikely that meaningless phrases like “a far richer set of possibilities” are good for anything other than a marketing pitch.

There are situations where gender matters, like it or not. Prison. Dorm rooms, should someone take issue with sharing such an intimate space with some of a different gender, unless of course it’s wrong to do so.  But these all bear upon some safety and hard justification that are situation-specific.  When gender matters, then it matters.

But the rest of the time, who cares?  What of the people bearing those cool, amorphous names that parents find so important these days, say “Seven,” which give no clue as to gender. A resume crosses a desk, and you determine qualifications based on, well, qualifications. Is this a problem?

Much as issues surrounding the cries for re-creation of society in the neo-Victorian fashion of protecting and defending the honor of delicate flowers, whether by laws directed to criminalizing their parochial concerns or by gender-focused attacks on anyone who ponders why it is that women march around with signs that proclaim their equality on one side and their weakness on the other, we should heed the admonition of H.L. Mencken, as bastardized to apply to this question:

[Feminism] is the theory that the [women] know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

There are times it’s good to be a guy. Other times, not so much. Regardless, it’s no business of the government’s unless and until there is a hard basis for the government to know.  Just because somebody decided to put a check box on a form years ago because, you know, it just seemed like a good idea the time, isn’t a reason to perpetuate it.

And if it turns out that the government’s inability to categorize or pigeonhole a person works to the disadvantage of a gender, welcome to life on the other side of the fence.

14 thoughts on “But There’s a Box; It Must Be Checked

  1. Steven M Warshawsky

    If the concept of a government mandated birth certificate makes sense, then the notion that it should not include the child’s biological sex is absurd. Sex is integral to identity, regardless of the theories spun by postmodern academics.

      1. delurking

        How do they choose to whom to send Selective Service registration forms?

        I admit, that was snarky. At first glance, I agree with your arguments. The only thing that gives me pause is that it is good to understand how some long-standing policy came to be before dismantling it. If your imagined scenario is correct, then my agreement becomes stronger. If there actually is a list of reasons gender is included, I’d like to see them before deciding if they are outdated or not strong enough to support the requirement.

        As a related aside, there was a hullabaloo in Greece recently over removing the “religion” line from such official documents. “Because we’ve always had it” seemed to be the primary argument in favor. I think it carried the day.

        1. SHG Post author

          Whether there was a good reason, and whether it remains a good reason, is always a fair question to ask. Maybe there is. I’m not closed to the prospect, but I just haven’t seen one yet.

  2. Turk

    Birth/death/sex stats are important for any gov’t that wants to plan and budget for a society’s future. Knowing that men live, on average, to x years of age and women to y years of age is critical when it comes to social security and medicare, for instance.

    This wasn’t the reason that tracking sex started, obviously, but budgeting for the future is nevertheless a pretty important gov’t function.

    1. SHG Post author

      But is gender on a birth certificate needed to accomplish a statistical survey? Wouldn’t the census be more than adequate to serve that purpose?

      1. Turk

        Wouldn’t the census be more than adequate to serve that purpose?

        That raises the same issue about why the gov’t should be asking that question at all if, as you write, “it’s no business of the government’s unless and until there is a hard basis for the government to know.

        1. SHG Post author

          Not when it’s anonymous and taken for statistical purposes, rather than a checked box that follows a person in every bit and byte of government data about the person from birth until death.

          Also, we come to use things because they’re there (nature abhors a vacuum), rather than because there was any initial justification or even because it’s the best, easiest, most efficient means of doing so. We get stuck because that’s how we do things. It’s circular, but self-justifying reasoning, and that doesn’t make it sound reasoning.

  3. LTMG

    I believe that if I don’t hang a label on myself then it is harder for others to label me. Without labels, implementing prejudices is just that much more difficult.

  4. PaulaMarie Susi

    I loved the old forms, the ones you had to write in the answer. I always answered “yes”. Pissed people off to no end.

  5. Chris Ryan

    First let me start by saying that this was an excellent thought inducing post that I am going to have to mull for a long while to really get a handle on. My views on human sexuality have changed a lot since I flew the coup, but I had never taken the leap to think about something as absurdly simple as asking this question. Even if the answer ends up being to leave it on, the justification should be thought out rather then because “thats the way its always been”.

    As far as the comments relating to selective service, and budgeting, etc, there are enough government forms we fill out that could easily include sex, that birth certificate doesn’t need to be one of them. Let the children decide their identity when they are old enough to understand, rather then have the government put them in a box when they are young.

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