In her commentary on the recently published report by The Future of Legal Gender research project, Susanna Rustin argues – as if this is a criticism of the report – that “it is dangerous to pretend that female people are not vulnerable in specific ways to male violence and other forms of social control” (Trying to erase the biological definition of sex isn’t just misguided – it’s dangerous, 28 Junie). This strikes me as a misreading of the central research question that underpins the report. I take this to be whether “decertifying” sex and gender as legal categories makes it easier or harder to challenge the many gender-based forms of inequality in our society.
The whole premise, dit is, is precisely that women do face multiple disadvantages as regards power, resources and visibility; that societies need strong and effective equality policies to address the gendered institutions and ideologies that shape and constrain our lives; and that any change with regard to the legal status of sex and gender therefore has to ensure that such policies are not weakened in the process. There is no pretence in this about female people somehow not being vulnerable to male violence or other forms of social control, and certainly no suggestion that gender is all in the mind.
The report seeks to open up rather than close down discussion, and it does so in a way that takes seriously both problems and possibilities. The most compelling aspect, to my mind, is that it encourages us to think more deeply about why it is considered necessary to allocate legal gender identities, when most of us would recoil in horror at the idea of people being stamped at birth with a specific racial or religious identity. It’s not that we need data on gender but never on ethnicity or religion or sexuality: we need data on all of these for the purposes of identifying and challenging inequalities, and we do indeed collect data on all of them. But collecting data is a different matter from fixing people with a specific legal label.
When I first heard of this project, which has been four years in the making, I took it to be very much engaged in blue-sky, utopian thinking, en, in the sense of what might be enacted in any immediate future, it is. But the questions it raises about whether having a legally allocated gender identity is either necessary or useful are ones we do need to ask, and I for one find the report genuinely thought-provoking.