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Stop confusing sex and gender
Leading biologist says gender self-ID law is unworkable
The renowned biologist Peter Koopman has warned politicians not to rush through a transgender rights law which he says conflates the fixed scientific category of biological sex with the changeable social construct of gender.
Shortly before Australia’s summer holidays, the Labor government in the state of Queensland introduced a draft law that would enable people aged 16 and older to change the “record of sex” on their birth certificate. The law would also allow children aged 12 to 15 to make this change against parental opposition or even without parents being notified of the proposed change, if a court so decides and “a developmentally-informed practitioner” supports the child.
As in other jurisdictions around the world, Queensland’s bill for “gender self-ID” has been promoted as necessary for trans people to “live authentically”, yet it contains the common but little discussed provision that the sex on birth certificates may be changed as often as once a year.
In evidence earlier today to the Legal Affairs and Safety Committee of Queensland’s parliament, Professor Koopman said he supported some form of legal recognition for gender self-ID, but not in the historical snapshot that is a birth certificate.
“The key problem, from my professional point of view, is [that the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Bill 2022] is flawed because it tries to conflate sex and gender, [to] put them all in the same lump — they're not, they're totally separate concepts,” he said.
“Sex has a very specific scientific and biological meaning that is essentially fixed.”
(He alluded in passing to the separate issue of the very small number of babies born with “intersex” conditions, more commonly known today as “differences or disorders of sexual development”.)
“Sex is a fundamental biological descriptor of an organism of a person, as fundamental as the species,” he said.
“Gender is something entirely different. It's a psychosocial construct. It's a much more fluid construct, it's open to self-identification.”
Professor Koopman, an Australian research scientist who spent more than 40 years working on biological sex, said it should be possible to enable gender self-ID with law reform that did not create “winners and losers.”
Asked who would lose under the Queensland bill, he noted that concerns about the “hard-fought rights of women” — and the related definition of a woman — came up “time and time again” in the 360-odd submissions to the parliamentary committee inquiry.
“I don't think that the negative consequences have been thought through properly,” he said.
Wherever gender self-ID has been proposed, critics have argued it will be exploited by predatory males, putting women and girls at risk, and will contribute to the surge in gender clinic medicalisation of children confused about their sex and feeling distress in their bodies. Self-ID advocates dismiss these risks as illusory.
Queensland’s government cites a low-quality statistic on suicide risk — an anonymous online survey reporting that 48.1 per cent of a non-random sample of 859 trans people aged 14 to 25 years had attempted suicide — to suggest that self-ID may improve the mental health of trans people.
Video: What makes you male or female?
Professor Koopman’s citation when elected in 2008 as a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science says he “is one of Australia’s leading developmental biologists.
“He is perhaps best known for his role in the discovery of the SRY maleness gene, resulting in four Nature papers and regarded as a major breakthrough in molecular genetics.
“He has continued to discover genes with important roles in development and disease, generating a stellar oeuvre of more than 200 research and conference papers cited more than 5000 times in the literature.
“Professor Koopman is an energetic spokesperson for Australian science, with outstanding contributions to editorship of international journals, organisation of international meetings, public engagement, teaching and peer review.”
Fixed v fluid
“There is no problem, in my view, with gender fluidity, with people being ‘agender’ or choosing how they want to identify themselves — that’s all fine,” Professor Koopman told today’s Queensland parliamentary inquiry.
“The key question in my mind is how to enshrine in law the person’s right to identify with whatever gender they may feel that they are,” he said.
“And I think it's very important to understand that a birth certificate is entirely the wrong instrument for a person to express their identity.
“A birth certificate is the historical record, which is very important in a number of different research, academic and scientific spheres. [It is] to be relied upon as a snapshot of what that person was, at the specific time of the point of their birth.”
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Introducing the draft law for gender self-ID in December 2022, Queensland’s Attorney-General and Minister for Women, Shannon Fentiman, said the law had to catch up with “an increasing awareness and acceptance of LGBTIQ+ rights in recent years — from the passage of marriage equality to the banning of conversion therapy.
“At the core of this bill is strengthening legal recognition of trans and gender diverse Queenslanders. We will remove the outdated requirement to undergo surgery and allow for non-binary and gender diverse descriptions to be used.”
She cited a constituent, Emily, who had told her office: “I look at my birth certificate and it’s wrong; it’s my last remaining identity document that’s in error.”
Ms Fentiman, who is also Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, said “some groups will try to cloak their transphobia in the guise of women’s safety — making claims about trans women accessing women’s spaces, including change rooms or even domestic violence shelters.”
She said those seeking to alter their birth certificate would have to make a statutory declaration “that they identify as the sex specified … and live, or seek to live, as a person of that sex, [and they must] nominate a sex descriptor.”
They would also have to provide a supporting statement from an adult who had known them for at least a year.
Under the bill, the registrar must refuse to change a record of sex if it has already been altered in the past 12 months. The registrar must also veto a sex descriptor that is “obscene, offensive or absurd”, “too long” or one that “consists of, or includes, symbols without phonetic significance.”
Another form, please
In Queensland’s parliament today Professor Koopman conceded there was scope to debate exactly what items of information should be included on a birth certificate — “but gender isn't one of those things, it's not something that a baby has yet.
“It seems very clear that there's a requirement for a different form of validation for people to register their chosen gender,” he said.
Professor Koopman suggested that some of the popular confusion between sex and gender stemmed from linguistic squeamishness.
“We, as a society, have a hopeless track record in understanding and keeping separate the concepts of sex and gender — partly because sex is a word that people tend not to want to use,” he said.
“So, we've adopted gender as a euphemism for sex, the word you use if you don't want to say s-e-x, but that's made us go backwards because now people think that gender is sex, when it's not.”
In his written submission to the parliamentary committee, Professor Koopman described Queensland’s draft law for self-ID gender as “unworkable” in its present form, and said the time allocated for the inquiry was “unrealistically short.” The reporting deadline is February 24.
He said Queensland had an opportunity to clarify sex, gender and their respective relevance in various social domains, “rather than merely adding to the current high level of misunderstanding and confusion.
“In many aspects of our society, segregation on the basis of sex or gender is the norm and is considered desirable or operationally beneficial,” his submission said.
“Prisons, single-sex schools, women’s gyms, women’s safe spaces, changing rooms, and many toilets are well known examples.
“Some professional opportunities and awards are open to one sex/gender. Many situations call for ‘gender balance’ or quotas — committees, professional groups, workplaces, juries, etc.
“Contemporary policy and law calls for a careful consideration of which such situations revolve around sex, or sex characteristics, and which situations revolve around gender identification.”