Russel Hoban: Gender debate demands compassion

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Identity issues are far bigger than toilet signage, but perhaps personal matters should stay personal.

We ought to accept people for who they are, not who we think they should be. Photo / Getty Images
We ought to accept people for who they are, not who we think they should be. Photo / Getty Images

Bob McCoskrie of Family First, writing under the heading "A child's desire to change sex can be a symptom of other disorders that can be treated", clearly positions his stand, but not the issue.

He brings in issues around Australian unisex toilets, the opinions of British school inspectors on cross-dressing and an American kindergarten's toilet access - with a myopic vision of sex as a physical issue based in genitalia and some unexplained horror around kindergarten toilets.

Don't we all share toilets in homes, regardless of the sex of other users?

Mr McCoskrie does not need to worry that as a country we are going into uncharted waters. Indeed, all his quoting is from overseas. New Zealand does not lead the world on this issue and many social developments that reflect a healthy society based in human rights and the dignity of the individual - but trails woefully and nervously behind.

The gender agenda (whatever that is, and whoever the bogey man is behind it) is not confusing for children; what is confusing is when the issue is mixed up with extremes, fear mongering, objectification and labelling - rather than recognising that such issues are extremely complex, intrinsically personal, subjective and individual.

Bob McCoskrie bizarrely places the responsibility on the media, asking are "we" happy to continue accepting the "choose your gender approach", with young children compounding the confusion.

This tone is at best disingenuous, trivialising the nightmare life of a small minority and making the issue of gender realignment sound like the selection of a commodity from a supermarket shelf.

Surely, the best approach for McCoskrie's great "we" is one of compassion, acceptance, openness and a desire for understanding.

As W.B. Yeats so beautifully puts the case for sensitivity: "But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

By citing other First World countries, principally around the labelling on toilet doors for toddlers who can't even read, McCoskrie deflects from the small number of people who are deeply and personally affected by this predicament.

Confusing the profound desire of a few with some nebulous, thankfully now defunct fear that sexuality and sex are up for grabs and that labels on kindergarten toilets really matter, he adds nothing helpful to the discussion.

"Sex and sexuality, however basic and objective they may seem to some, remain deeply mysterious."
Russell Hoban

McCoskrie never details the treatment he is suggesting, the proven effectiveness of it, or whether those who are wishing gender alignment actually want it. Is it really a case of just a spoonful of psycho babble, and you can learn sex and sexuality as easy as ABC?

For a minuscule percentage of people living lives of deep despair, facing lives of harassment, abuse, insults and depression, aligning their sex with their identity is utterly intrinsic to their lives.

As Dr Kim Seok-kwun, a plastic surgeon at Dong-A University Hospital in Busan, bluntly expresses, "without [surgeries], they'd kill themselves".

I struggle to understand how someone changing their sex due to gender identity issues affects me, or is even my business.

The example of the girl, labelled "little" rather than given a name, expressing to her parents, "I'm not a girl, I think I'm a boy", proves that the issue is so fundamental to identity - that at the age of 6 a child can clearly articulate the matter.

She expresses succinctly and simply what many unaffected adults refuse to understand, preferring rather to dump their own issues, insecurities, ignorance and judgments into the matter.

In conservative Japan, the Osaka Family Court has recently approved the adoption of a 3-year-old boy by a woman in her 30s, who changed her sex from a male to a female. This is believed to be the first case in Japan and sets a new precedent for a more inclusive approach to the diversity of gender and family.

In 2004, a law was enacted in Japan to allow such people to change their registered gender and marry.

This is what she did and after "many cruel circumstances", as she says, she was matched with a boy through an adoption programme.

Through the Japanese family court system, the child's legal relationship with his biological parents had been terminated. This woman is now legally treated in the same way as the child's natural parent.

This is way beyond New Zealand's clumsy, bumbling and politically nervous approach to such situations.

In conservative South Korea, Dr Seok-kwun, who has carried out 320 sex change operations in the past 28 years, expresses that many patients see the operation as a matter of life and death.

He requires his patients to get testimony from at least two psychiatrists confirming gender identity disorder, requires that they live for more than a year in the opposite gender clothing and get parental approval. He is at present treating a Buddhist monk who was born a female.

Despite his own personal journey based in compassion and acceptance in coming to terms with the work he does for his patients - "I was overcome with a sense of shame," he says - and the misery and documented suicides around the issue, he must face the likes of Rev Hong Jae-chul, president of the Christian Council of Korea, who calls his sex-change operations "a blasphemy against God".

This month, Australia's highest court recognised the existence of a third "non-specific", neutral gender. The NSW Court of Appeal expressed: "As a matter of construction ... the word sex does not bear a binary meaning of 'male' or 'female'."

High Court judges said that in actuality, "the sex of the individuals concerned is irrelevant to legal relations".

Does sex and sexuality in the modern world need to be placed in exclusive, fixed and imperative terms?

Are we at risk of teaching kindergarten children to label people when we insist and obsess about signage on their toilet doors?

Is it really the media's responsibility to manage social discussions around a small minority of people who cannot relate to their gender?

Rather than fear and the controlling and managing of the discussion around gender realignment, shouldn't this matter be held within acceptance of difference, a hunger for understanding and a spirit of compassion?

Surely these are the very best lessons that you can give a child rather than the importance of who may have used their toilet before them.

Russell Hoban is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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