A couple of days ago erstwhile Salonista and now New York Times writer Damien Cave reported on a fascinating new development in the freedom of New Yorkers to define their identities. New York City has plans to allow individuals to change their gender on their birth certificates, regardless of physical appearance or surgery.
At this point New York is trying to preserve some semblance of order: Anyone who wishes to change his or her gender must provide evidence of having been living as the other sex for two years, offer testimony from doctors and commit to making the change permanent. The decision was lauded by transgender groups, who have long maintained that mainstream society is altogether too hung up on genitalia as the be-all and end-all of gender identity. Many transsexuals don't have the money or desire to undergo surgery, yet they have managed to cross over nonetheless.
But what's downright fabulous about this new law is that it's only the beginning. Taken to the logical extreme, it unfurls the fallacy of gender to its incoherent core.
What about people who are born with ambiguous genitalia? Why should they be forced to choose a side that isn't scientifically valid? Like plant and animal, male or female is a scientific category that sometimes is too crude for the subtle variations in nature. Controversies vis-`-vis the incidence of intersexuality (ambiguous sex) rage on and estimates range anywhere from 1 in 2,000 births to 1 in 4,500 births. But to really put it in perspective, intersexuality is as common as cystic fibrosis and Down syndrome. Sometimes people are born seeming to be women; later, when puberty hits, they present more as men. Others look very much like women throughout their lives but at a chromosomal level are actually considered male.
So hurray, New York; bring on the ambiguity. It's sure to throw a scientific wrench into the same-sex marriage debate. I won't say gender doesn't exist, or even that it's a smooth continuum, but it's not the clean dividing line that the Christian right would have us believe.
This post has been corrected since its original publication.