Portraits of the gender revolutionaries

The English language has long searched for the right pronoun for a person who is neither male nor female. These photographs reveal the people who are the face of that social journey, writes Julia Baird.

What words should be used for a person who is neither male nor female?

Some prefer to be called “xie” instead of she, or he. Others prefer “they” – or even “zhe” or “zher” as a replacement for “he” or “her”. Because for those pioneers who leap from the two neat boxes of gender to something else, in between and beyond, it quickly becomes all about the pronoun.

What, ask people, usually clumsily, should I call you?

Which is at least a progression from the baser, and yet most crucial of questions: What are you? Boy or girl? Man or woman?

Ever since Australia became one of the first countries in the world to recognise a third gender- termed by the High Court as “non-specific” – the transgender and intersex communities have been roiled by a debate over words. As far back as Victorian times, people argued for the use of gender neutral pronouns like “hir” or even “e” or “s”, “shi” or “hir” and “humself”.

Charles Crozat Converse came close in 1884 when his word, “thon”, meaning “that one” was listed in dictionaries, but most of these suggestions have been greeted with silence.

Until now. Norrie May-Welby, who won the right to be recognised as something other than male and female in the High Court this year, wanted to be called intersex – but the intersex community howled in protest.  Norrie was not technically intersex, they said, because xie was not born with ambiguous sexual anatomy. Norrie had been identified as male at birth (she now says this was because her opinion was not sought.)

Instead, Norrie is now free to call herself “non specific” on official documentation. Norrie says:

As long as there’s no ill will, I don’t really care what pronouns people use, but it pleases me enormously to be included with those who use the xie and hir pronouns. But, I’m old, from a time before these new fangled pronouns, and I’m happy with “she” or “they”. English has always allowed for sex-non-specific pronouns.

But for many people the question remains: what gender are you? Does it matter? Do I need to know? Our photographer, Louise Cooper, snapped a group of individuals who answer, “myself”, “either”, “both” or “none”. They insist gender is not static, neatly labeled or easily boxed, and that their bodies defy categorisation.

Some prefer the term fluid, as it replaces rigid definitions with the idea of changeability, a protean, ever-shifting sense of self, gender and sex that shatters one of the most fundamental assumptions of our culture: that you are born wearing pink or blue. It is precisely this that perplexes, and sometimes infuriates, people who divide the world into male and female.

The implications of this are immense – and radically subversive. So our photo gallery is, in that sense, a series of portraits of quiet revolutionaries.

A multimedia version of this piece appears on the ABC’s new tablet app The Brief, which can be downloaded here.

Julia Baird is an author, broadcaster and journalist, currently hosting The Drum on ABC 24. View her full profile here.