By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
In June, Toronto-based writer and activist Christin Milloy published “Don’t Let the Doctor Do This to Your Newborn” on Slate.com. Her article presented gender assignment at birth as a mysterious, potentially life-threatening procedure forced upon new parents—a realistic view, given the alarmingly high suicide attempt rates reported by trans people mis-assigned during this process.
The article, which was met with venomous opposition, clearly struck a nerve, and introduced an idea we’ll likely hear much more about in the years to come. We spoke recently to Milloy about her article, how gender assignment harms trans children, and her vision of abolishing gender as a legal category.
PQ: The first thing people often ask when they learn someone is pregnant is what gender the baby is. As a trans person, I can recognize how harmful the practice of gender assignment at birth has been to my life, but I don’t think culture at large has any idea. What’s your take on the topic now and its place in our society?
CM: People gender babies because babies have a physical sex, and people think that sex and gender automatically go hand-in-hand.
To properly understand the identities of trans people, including non-binary, it’s first necessary to understand and accept that a dichotomy exists between the physical sex of a person, and the gender identity they embody.
The traditional ideology, “cissexism,” holds that one’s anatomy leads naturally to a particular gender identity. It is a demonstrably false belief, as evidenced by the existence of trans people. But despite that, it’s still very ingrained in our culture and our traditions—much as we once accepted that the Earth was flat, or that the Sun revolved around it.
PQ: In my view gender assignment at birth essentially means assigning every child a cisgender identity, which trans and non-binary people then have to undo socially and legally through transitioning. It seems to me, then, that for trans equality to be achieved, gender assignment at birth would have to be abolished, so that trans* identities could emerge and be affirmed organically. What are your thoughts on the topic?
CM: In terms of “abolishment,” I believe that de-legislating gender, removing from all lawbooks and regulations any concept of individuals’ having a “legal gender” or sex, is a necessary and positive step forward for our society, one which we must work toward, that will pave the way for dramatically transformative improvements in gender equality and gender diversity in our culture.
I agree wholeheartedly that the widespread, all but universal practice of cissexist infant gendering is hugely problematic for trans persons. It condemns anyone who doesn’t conform with cis identity to enormously challenging and traumatic battles in nearly every aspect of their lives. Just as the personal sense of gender identity emerges organically over time, so too do I hope and expect that the cultural practice of infant gendering will fall out of favor gradually, at least in the secular West, over the next two to four generations.
PQ: Your article was the first I’d seen about this topic, and I was a little shocked by the hostility with which it was met, not just in the comments section on Slate, which, sadly, one might have expected, but in trans forums where it was posted, as well. What are your thoughts on its reception?
CM: Trans people occasionally assimilate aspects of cissexist culture, unintentionally internalizing some of those attitudes into their thought patterns, sometimes without even realizing it. I think it’s because the drive to conform at all costs is beaten into many of us by our life experiences, and also by the gatekeeping doctors who blockade us from accessing treatment if we fail to comply with their cissexist expectations.
Many of my detractors who are trans suggested I had “gone too far,” or that I was “being ridiculous.” There’s an attitude some hold that if we push too far or too fast, we’ll lose what limited support we receive from some cis people; that we should therefore moderate our battle for equality in a way that appeases the cis majority by accommodating cis superiority. History teaches the unequivocal ineffectiveness of moderate, apologist approaches to civil rights issues. When someone says “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” the only possible response is “I am not your pet.”
PQ: The trans movement is experiencing unprecedented success currently, and there seems to be a general sympathy for, and receptiveness toward, our cause in the public at large. That said, this idea is likely as avant-garde to the cultural imagination today as marriage equality was 20 years ago. Is this a goal you can imagine activists pursuing?
CM: First off, it’s very important to define what we’re discussing. Gender is an ideology. It is a standard of behavior, of expression, and a part of one’s identity. It would be unethical to attempt, and infeasible to enforce, legal interference with a parent’s “right” to impose a gender identity on their infant if they choose to do so. I do not advocate for legal interference in that regard.
However, we can certainly remove sex and gender from all forms of government-issued identification; we can purge it from legislation and databases, and I encourage activists worldwide to pursue this worthy goal. Doctors would, of course, continue to diagnose a baby’s physical sex, along with other birth statistics such as weight. However, with the legal formality nullified, that designation would no longer follow, and potentially stigmatize, the individual for the rest of their life.
PQ: Your article cleverly presents gender assignment as a “procedure” resulting in depression, social ostracism and possibly suicide. The dysphoria I experienced in puberty, and the overwhelming social anxiety that accompanied transitioning, were equally traumatic for me; both could have been avoided had my gender been accepted when it emerged, rather than overridden by birth assignment. Would you like to say anything about how this personally affected your life?
CM: Quite frankly, I feel my childhood was stolen from me. I always felt I identified more with girls and wanted to do “girl things,” but everyone in my life always insisted I was a boy, so I took it as the unchangeable truth. That’s cissexism.
My parents brought me to counselors, who each encouraged me to stand up for myself, “take responsibility” for my bullying; that it was happening to me “because of my behavior.” I was told by figures in authority that it was my own fault, that I must learn to “be a man,” something I absolutely could not manage to do no matter how hard I tried. For years, I lived a sort of misery I would never wish on anyone. I often fantasized that I possessed constitution and willpower sufficient to the act of suicide.
All of this was forced on me, because the world decided I was a boy without my input or consent. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind I would have been a very happy little girl, if anyone had ever thought to ask me with an open mind and open heart.