Neither Female Nor Male

SYDNEY, Australia — PRETTY much the No. 1 question you are asked when you’re pregnant is: “Girl or boy?” If you choose not to find out, but to be deliciously surprised at birth, as I did, then you will be asked to guess: “What do you feel it is?” I used to scrunch up my eyes and try hard to draw on what people told me was an age-old female intuition: Which genitals were sprouting in my round belly? I could never tell, though.

It is as though the entire world is trying to guess what, or who, is inside you. One oft-told tale is that girls steal your looks and make you fat, while boys just make your belly stick out straight. When I stood wearily bulging at one friend’s baby shower in Manhattan, a stylist confided that she thought our mutual friend was having a boy, because she looked so pretty. Then she looked me up and down: “I think you’re having a girl.” (I placed her in the same category as the neighbor who yelled, “Morning, Fatty!” over the side fence each day.)

Why is whether a baby wears blue or pink the most pressing matter for adult acquaintances of a soon-to-be-born? Green is just fine, or white. But a 2007 Gallup poll found that most young Americans, and women under 50, would like to find out the sex of their baby before it is born. In some American fertility clinics, staff experts check the embryo’s sex before they implant it in the womb.

So what will it do to our collective minds when forced to grasp that some people are neither gender? Not male, or female, but something else either encompassing, or rejecting, or just adapting from both? Last week, Australia had to grapple with just that after the High Court, in a historic decision, ruled that a person called Norrie May-Welby could register as “nonspecific” on official certificates. Now 52, Norrie was identified, physically, as male when she was born, in Scotland, but was drawn to the world of girls, playing with dolls at age 4 and tying her school tie around her head at night to create the illusion of long hair. She escaped into the library monitors’ group at school and made up adventures where she played six characters, five of whom were female: “I didn’t think there was any problem with this,” she says. “After all, just because I wasn’t really from Krypton, didn’t mean I couldn’t imagine being Supergirl.”

In 1989, Norrie underwent gender reassignment surgery. But after awhile being purely female did not seem right, either. She had been exploring gender theory, “began questioning the sex binary, and realized I didn’t want to dissociate myself from aspects of myself simply because they were labeled masculine, so it’s not so much about not being female, as not being exclusively female. I am both a man and a woman, I am not simply one and not the other.”

And now the law recognizes this. Australia’s highest court found that the 1995 Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act (New South Wales) recognized that a person’s sex might be ambiguous and “does not require that people who, having undergone a sex affirmation procedure, remain of indeterminate sex — that is, neither male nor female — must be registered, inaccurately, as one or the other. The Act itself recognises that a person may be other than male or female and therefore may be taken to permit the registration sought, as ‘nonspecific.’ ”

The implications are enormous. Although the ruling relates to New South Wales, five of the seven Australian states and territories have the same language in their legislation, so it is expected to apply to most of the country, and to be used for interpretation of any laws that refer to the sex of a person.

It follows a ruling last year in Australia that people could mark X for “indeterminate” in the gender category of their passports (without having had surgery); the same decision had been made a year earlier in New Zealand. Other countries also shifted significantly toward full recognition of “nonspecific” gender in 2013: Nepal started to issue citizenship papers with a category for a “third gender,” and Germany became the first European country to allow parents of intersex children — those born with both genitals, or ambiguous sex characteristics — to mark their birth certificates with an X.

The global third-gender movement is gaining momentum with a startling rapidity that our laws and language are scrambling to keep pace with. Norrie prefers the term “androgynous.” Other words considered in the case were “neuter,” “intersex” and “transgender,” but the court decided on “nonspecific.” Members of the intersex community had argued that Norrie should not be able to call herself “intersex” because she had not technically been born so. (Norrie does not mind being called “her” or “she,” though she also likes the pronouns “xie” or “hir.”)

The “nonspecific” category is broad, mind-boggling and potentially hugely subversive in terms of the way we think about boys and girls, men and women, and our habit of dividing people into two distinct, gendered groups. Now it’s Adam, Eve — and Norrie.

“The normal distribution curve, after all, is not just about the bulk in the middle, but also the outliers,” Norrie said triumphantly. “Diversity is normal.”

It will be many years before most fully grasp what this means.

When Norrie heard the news of her win, she was lying on her bed, rubbing a luffa on her legs, preparing to shower. She screamed and howled with delight, dancing across to the bathroom: “We won, we won, we won!”

Ever since then she has fielded media calls, tried to respond to “overwhelming and positive response from people in Australia and around the world,” held news conferences, walked barefoot into TV studios and posed on her rainbow-colored bicycle, equipped with a bubble-blowing machine, for photographers.

And then? She got engaged to her best friend, Samuel. This is what lies next for Norrie: Do laws prevent someone “nonspecific” from marrying a man? Same-sex marriage is illegal in Australia. But can a xie marry a he? Having freed herself from one large lump of legal kryptonite, Norrie now intends to find out.