In recent years, all states and territories have recognised the phenomenon called “gender reassignment”. This means that throughout Australia anyone who wants to switch from being male to female or from female to male can now do so legally and have the change recorded on his or her birth certificate. The person concerned does not even have to undergo any surgery. It is enough to simply adopt what the legislators call a “transgender identity” and then fill out the forms. A distinction that was once thought to be irreducibly grounded in biology is now a matter of choice.
In most cases, the governments concerned did not introduce any new laws but amended those covering birth registrations and/or anti-discrimination provisions. Western Australia went the furthest when in 2001 the government passed the Gender Reassignment Act and established a Gender Reassignment Board. New South Wales, which recognized “transgender” persons in amendments to its anti-discrimination legislation in 1996, changed its Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Regulations in 2001 to include the text of the Western Australian Act.
This essay appeared in Quadrant‘s May, 2004, edition.
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What this means is that the word “gender”, which until recent years was little more than a politically fashionable substitute for “sex”, has now been enshrined in legislation. Since the number of people directly affected is small, the change is primarily linguistic and symbolic, but no less significant for that.
It is a change that happened surprisingly quickly. Well into the 1980s, the preferred term was still “sex”. The Hawke government introduced the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984. That is why Pru Goward is still called the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. The Bannon Labor government of South Australia introduced its Sexual Reassignment Act in 1988. Had a Sex Discrimination Act been initiated today there is no question that Ms Goward would have “gender” in her title. In the media and most other public discussion, “sex” has now been largely purged in favour of the newer usage.
For instance, recent newspaper stories report that the Government Insurance Office calculates car insurance risks on “make and age of vehicle, age and gender of owner/drivers”; the Sydney radio station Nova provides “an eclectic mix of music which caters for no particular age or gender”; the new Speedo racing swimsuits “are specific for different strokes as well as gender”. Other stories have discussed the “gender pay gap”, the “gender reading gap”, “gender issues”, “gender relations’, “gender discrimination”, “gender equality”, “gender imbalance” and “gender impact statements”.
Despite this acceptance, traditional usage has not been completely eradicated and inconsistencies abound. Earlier this year, the phrase “same-sex marriage” was commonly used to describe the spate of ceremonies performed in San Francisco and Massachusetts, although one publication of the Anglican Church in Sydney preferred the term “same-gender marriages”. A story in the Sunday Telegraph said a “transgender” golfer had had a “sex-change operation”.
Even the Gender Centre in Sydney, an organisation funded by the NSW government to support transgender people and to educate the wider population, still feels the need to explain the term:
If you live, have lived, or want to live as a member of the opposite gender (sex) to your birth gender, the New South Wales anti-discrimination law counts you as transgender … under NSW law, only some people who are transgender are legally counted as being the opposite gender (sex) to their birth gender (that is, as their preferred gender).
Some might think “gender” has gained its current acceptance either because it is a more polite term or because it removed the ambiguity that emerged in the twentieth century when “sex” became publicly used to refer not only to the distinct status of males and females but also to sexual intercourse. However, there is much more to it than that.
“Gender” is a term that reeks of the sexual politics of the Seventies. It made its first appearance when gay activists began to demand that homosexuality be not merely tolerated but given equal standing with heterosexuality in all things. It was reinforced by feminists who wanted to eliminate the differences between men and women.
These activists had to face the fact that sexual differences are grounded in biology. They are determined at conception by the distribution of X and Y chromosomes and cannot be altered, no matter what identity a person assumes, how many hormones someone ingests, or whatever surgery is performed. Moreover, the biology of sexual difference has no place for homosexual activities. Indeed, it implies they are unnatural.
A reconceptualisation was obviously needed and the linguistic term “gender” came to the rescue, even though there is no gender assigned in the English language. In those languages that do use it, gender is applied arbitrarily and by custom. There is no inherent reason, apart from customary use, why the French language, for instance, applies the feminine gender to “the sea” or “the mountain”, la mer, la montagne, or masculine gender to “the dog” or “the desk”, le chien, le bureau. If gender is arbitrary and customary, it can be altered by changing the language.
The activists saw that if “sex” was redefined as “gender”, it too became arbitrary and changeable. Hence, masculinity, femininity and homosexuality were transformed from the realm of biological necessity to that of custom. Since the mantra of Seventies radicalism was “the personal is political”, the way to ensure change was to engage in political struggle to have the new concept socially accepted.
The institution that did most to foster this reconceptualisation was the university. The agenda was set by the humanities departments when the fledgling “women’s studies” courses of the 1970s were transformed into “gender studies” in the 1980s. The feminist jargon and moralistic speech codes adopted within most Australian universities at the time were largely the work of academics from these departments. When their graduates eventually entered the bureaucracies, they took their linguistic concepts with them.
Meanwhile, the public at large remained oblivious to this sleight of hand. Most people never understood the issues at stake and saw nothing to get upset about, let alone any evidence of a campaign to impose an ideological orthodoxy. Even most of those who made their living as writers in the media saw no need for any fuss and, unwilling to offend the protagonists, they allowed “gender” to take the field without a struggle.
This strategy has been remarkably successful. One doesn’t have to subscribe to the postmodernist theory that language determines all our thoughts to agree that a change to the language can influence some of our thoughts. This has certainly happened in how we now think about sex. We no longer talk about two sexes but of at least six varieties of gender preference: male and female heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered.
This is not to mention several further categories: cross-dressers, drag queens, transvestites, hermaphrodites, plus pre-, post- and non-operative transsexuals. (I quote this inventory from a recent policy document of the Tasmanian Department of Education entitled Challenging Transphobia.) There is now an academic journal called Genders, to emphasise how many there are.
Hence the idea once confined to radical circles that heterosexuality and homosexuality were not biological imperatives but personal and political choices is now much more widely accepted. As a result, the ability of sexual activists to recruit followers in schools and universities at a time when adolescents are often confused or uncertain about their sexual identity has been made all that much easier. The left has chalked up another victory in the culture wars.
Much the same has occurred with the term “partner”. News stories about entertainers, sporting celebrities and political identities now rarely bother to portray their characters’ sexual relationships precisely. Recent stories about footballer Jamie Lyon, athlete Darren Clark, Coffs Harbour mayor Jenny Bonfield and Tasmanian green activist Naomi Edwards all described them as having not wives, husbands, girlfriends or spouses but partners. The Sunday Telegraph recently advised pregnant women to avoid intercourse if “your partner has a sexually transmitted disease”. A story in the Daily Telegraph said married women often put on weight because they “no longer needed to look attractive for a partner”.
Even Liberal Party ministers use the same terminology, such as Assistant Treasurer Helen Coonan who distinguished in a recent news release between the single rate for pensions and “the maximum partnered benefit”.
Like “gender”, the term “partner” has now been written into legislation. In 2000 the New South Wales Parliament passed the Superannuation (Same Sex Partners) Bill allowing homosexual couples to leave their superannuation to each other. In Australia, however, we still have some way to go to match the Dutch Parliament which, when it passed a bill in 2002 to allow homosexual marriages and adoptions, ordered that terms such as “husband and wife” and “man and woman” be replaced by “partner” in all legislation.
In traditional usage, “partner” described a business relationship. In the 1980s, when homosexual couples began to be openly discussed in print, for lack of a more polite term each came to be commonly described as the other’s partner. It is this homosexual definition, not the business version, that is now widely applied to heterosexual couples.
Until quite recently, the common name for a live-in, unmarried lover was “de facto”. A de facto relationship is essentially a heterosexual one, something like a marriage but without the legal and ceremonial confirmation. This term still crops up occasionally in the media, such as the recent Daily Telegraph story about a man bashed by a gang in Campbelltown: “He and his de facto had been walking along Queen Street … ” These days, however, this usage stands out because it has become so rare.
Indeed, it was revealing that when Australian animator, Adam Elliot, won an Academy Award for his film Harvie Krumpet, he publicly thanked his “boyfriend”, Dan Doherty. Asked whether he was aware he was the first to use that term in an acceptance speech, Elliot replied: “The reason I didn’t say partner is because it’s ambiguous.” In other words, “partner” is now such a ubiquitous term for both homosexuals and heterosexuals that Elliot felt he needed to use another word to assure his audience that he was actually gay.
What the rapid demise of “de facto” and its replacement by “partner” signifies is the reduction of heterosexual relationships to a common linguistic denominator with those of male homosexuals. It redefines the traditional life-long heterosexual bond of marriage, which evolved primarily for the need of children to be reared in a stable and loving household, as no more than one of a series of impermanent relationships built entirely on the sexual desires of the participants and which can be broken at whim.
Of course, in this case there is some reality behind the terminological change. As divorce rates and unmarried pairings both escalate, traditional marriage patterns do seem to increasingly resemble the kind of transitory relationships that were once identified more with male homosexuals. The shift in terminology has no doubt followed the shift in life patterns rather than been a cause of it.
The growing use of “partner”, however, has had its own effect. It has helped cement this change more firmly into place by defining serial relationships as the norm rather than the exception. The rise of the term “partner” is another example of the homosexualisation of our culture. Once again, this is a considerable victory for the sexual radicals.
In these language wars, conservatives have not been completely subdued. Indeed, they scored a notable triumph in the 1990s when “politically correct” became part of common usage. “Politically correct” had the great virtue of being a satirical term. It was used by conservatives to send up leftist attempts to impose speech codes that forbade negative descriptors based on race, sex, class, ethnicity, sexual proclivity and disability. The disabled were no longer to be called blind, deaf, dumb or crippled. They were simply different, indeed “challenged” by their difference.
The worst offenders were bureaucracies and public education. In the early 1990s, the suffix “man” was ruled sexist by the Australian Government’s style manual for official publications, which forbade terms such as “sportsmanship”, “workman” and “statesmanlike”. Guidelines for American university presses declared a wide range of prohibitions including “massacre”, which was “highly offensive” when used to refer to a successful American Indian raid or battle victory against white colonizers and invaders. White Americans, however, could still be said to massacre the Indians. No one could be called “deranged”, “insane” or “deviant”, let alone “mad” or crazy”. Even “virgin forest” was out, along with any other comment about sexual experience or sexual violation. In many government offices, schools and universities “Merry Christmas” became “Happy Holiday” or “Season’s Greetings”, lest it offend the non-Christian. These therapeutic euphemisms were so transparently self-righteous and paternalistic they became a standing joke.
Political correctness is often portrayed as a conservative plot against the left. This was the claim of a 1995 counter-attack by John K. Wilson, author of The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education. It was echoed by the outspoken Scottish feminist lawyer Helena Kennedy: “Political correctness is an invention of the right”. This is a misunderstanding that grew from the fact that the acronym “PC” first gained notice in an anti-left student cartoon strip produced at Brown University, Rhode Island.
“Political correctness” works so well because it satirises terminology long used by the left itself. A recent analysis, Political Correctness and the Theoretical Struggle by Frank Ellis of the University of Leeds, shows that rather than being a stuffy but essentially harmless effort to avoid offending people, the concept has long been deeply embedded within radical culture.
It originated in the early writings of Vladimir Lenin and evolved as a concept in his work up to 1917. The phrase politicheskaya pravil‘nost’ derived from Lenin’s insistence on a rigidly enforced party line on all questions. Lenin argued that only a specifically revolutionary theory would prevent the revolutionary movement from abandoning “the correct path”. Before the Russian revolution, to be politically incorrect meant being denounced by Lenin as a “revisionist”, “factionalist”, “wrecker” and “enemy of the people”. After the revolution, to be politically incorrect meant a death warrant. Joseph Stalin used the phrase in the 1920s to destroy his rivals Trotsky and Bukharin.
Mao Tsetung’s China was similarly obsessed with the concept. The cultural revolution of the 1960s declared that China “needs a unifying thought, revolutionary thought, correct thought. That is Mao Tsetung Thought. Only with this thought can we maintain vigorous revolutionary drive and keep firmly to the correct political orientation.”
In other words, political correctness means there is only one line on any issue, and we who control the party will tell you what it is. The concept is profoundly authoritarian, it tolerates no opposition and denies its adherents the right to think for themselves.
The New Left that emerged in Western universities in the 1960s initially declared itself opposed to this kind of totalitarianism. However, by the 1980s, when it had expanded its constituency to encompass gender, race and class and gained widespread control of academic departments of humanities and government institutions for affirmative action and multiculturalism, it had reverted to type.
It was the left’s attempt to impose its brand of authoritarianism through various speech codes, racial vilification and anti-discrimination laws that provoked conservatives into a reaction. All they needed to do was reproduce the left’s own terminology verbatim for most people outside these circles to recognize it for what it was.
So it is not surprising to find Don Watson provides only a brief mention of political correctness in his new book Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language. The former Keating government speech writer says he has written this work as an assault on obfuscation and euphemism and to critique the way people in authority use language to intimidate and manipulate.
As a loyal leftist, Watson avoids a proper discussion of political correctness, except to try and turn it against conservatives. He lumps both political correctness and “its equally irritating twin anti-political correctness” together as a form of language that “inclines to the arcane or inscrutable.” However, Watson doesn’t give any examples of either arcane or inscrutable anti-politically correct language, so it is hard to know what he means. Later he claims that the label politically correct is a form of abuse designed to channel “frustrations felt by the politically powerless”. But he gives no clues about who or where these frustrations are channeled nor who he defines as politically powerless.
Watson is also concerned about several other terms wielded by conservatives in the language wars, especially “elite”, “chattering classes”, “café latte” and “black-armband historians”. Yet his book is an argument against verbal sludge and in favour of striking and imaginative language. If any Australian-originated phrase qualifies as striking, it is surely “black-armband history”, coined by Geoffrey Blainey, one of this country’s most imaginative writers, and a more impressive practitioner of the art than poor Don Watson will ever be. Blainey’s phrase summed up the entire left-wing school that had dominated Australian historiography since the 1970s and at the same time told us what was wrong with it. Were Watson less politically jaundiced and more genuinely interested in feats of verbal dexterity, he might have grudgingly dipped his lid to Blainey for this one.
In an age of terrorism, debates over language might seem rather trivial but they deserve to be taken seriously. In 1946, just before the onset of the Cold War, a much more dangerous time for the world than our own, George Orwell wrote an important essay called “Politics and the English Language”. He began by noting that many people at the time believed Western civilization was decadent and that the language must inevitably share in the general collapse. He wrote:
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Orwell’s essay was an attempt to turn this around. He said the English language was becoming ugly and inaccurate because the thinking of the times was muddled and foolish. Moreover, the process was cumulative since the increasing slovenliness of the language itself made it more likely that people would have foolish thoughts. Orwell argued that if the bad habits of modern English could be eradicated, people would begin to think more clearly and thus take the first steps to political regeneration. “The fight against bad English,” he wrote, “is not frivolous and not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
There can be little doubt that we, too, live in a time of cultural and moral decadence, especially with an arrogant and authoritarian left dominating so much of our education, arts and public life. Those who are concerned about this and want to do something about it should recognize that the language itself is one of the critical fronts where this struggle will be lost or won.
Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant.