What is gender X and why it matters to government and Defence


Whatever you imagine a gender X person to be, you’re probably wrong.

People who are neither male nor female are not all in the same situation, and have different reasons for not fitting in a binary allocation. It might be biological, it might be a feeling, it might be a matter of principle.

Official guidelines from the Attorney General’s Department define gender X as indeterminate, intersex or unspecified, and could related to either sex or gender information collected about a person. “The X category refers to any person who does not exclusively identify as either male or female.”

Sex and gender are not the same

A frustration for many in that category, as well as transgender people, is that government conflates sex and gender.

Pride in Diversity, an organisation that advises many government organisations on gender diversity issues, describes gender identity as how a person feels about themselves, unrelated to their biological sex, or who they are attracted to.

Some people are born intersex, not exclusively female or male. Intersex status is solely about biology. They may choose to identify as a specific gender, or they may present as male in some parts of their life, and female in others, or they may not choose at all.

Others were born biologically female or male but choose to identify as neither. They may prefer terms like non-binary gender or genderqueer.

Variances in sex and gender appearance are strongly correlated with being the victim of violent crime. For that reason what information appears on official documents can be a safety issue. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Sex Files report tried to convey some of those concerns from the gender diverse community, as well as highlight existing discrimination.

Barring state-issued birth certificates, much of that discrimination was subsequently addressed in the 2013 Sex Discrimination Act amendments that explicitly forbids government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. Still, the confusion over sex and gender largely remains.

For more information, check out The Genderbread Person. Or hear directly from gender X people sharing their personal stories on the Genderfork project, which has been running for 10 years.

Meet Tony

Tony Briffa is a Councillor with Hobson Bay City Council in Victoria, its former mayor, and campaigns to reduce the stigma of intersex status. By trade Briffa is an aircraft engineer, involving a lot of overseas travel, who also served with Defence and the Australian Federal Police.

Cr Tony Briffa

Briffa is one of many intersex people who have a need for ‘X’ to exist, but live their lives by their own choosing.

“Mostly intersex people identify as male or female,” Briffa says, adding that most are also straight. Being linked constantly with the other letters of LGBTI can lead people to incorrect assumptions.

“My passport does say ‘X’ and that’s because when I travel I don’t know what sex I’m going to be taken as in any given country.

“I’m happy to go with the flow, frankly. I just don’t want to be any trouble. If you see me as female, I’ll be female while I’m here, if you see me as male, I’ll be male. It really shouldn’t matter … I’d rather not have to worry about it.”

The Darlington Statement outlines the key common priorities for the intersex community, including legal reform to recognise our bodily autonomy, effective rights-based oversight of clinical decisions, alongside access to affirmative health care and the importance of peer support.

The genderqueer veterans

Other than an ‘X’ in personnel records, colleagues may never know who among them is genderqueer or non-binary gender. Gender-neutral clothing is unlikely to raise eyebrows in any government workplace, except in workplaces where a uniform is worn.

“Overall, I see my military service as a positive,” says one genderqueer veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan theatres of war who chooses to remain anonymous.

“While the hyper-masculine environment of the military couldn’t erase my gender nonconformity, the strength I needed to accept and love myself for who I am was in a very big way derived from the ‘can do’ ethos I learned in the service.”

The veteran says that transgender, genderqueer, and other stripes of gender nonconforming veterans are starting to form their own voice, but “I know all too well that isn’t easy and how our experiences as a military veteran can be quickly overshadowed by how we’re gendered.”

Language can prove particularly challenging as it is often so entrenched, says a new book, Inclusion in the American Military: a Force for Diversity, which explores how gender has influenced the US military and 18 others nations, including Australia, that ended gender-based restrictions, including for transgender personnel.

“Appropriate language shows respect, while intentional misuse can not only be hurtful, but may consistent harassment,” writes Judith Rosenstein, Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy. “It may take some time to become accustomed to using new pronouns … that is understandable.”

What specifically is Defence trying to do?

We don’t know enough detail yet.

The initial statement simply said Defence was exploring an exemption to the Sex Discrimination Act, which covers a lot of ground. A follow-up statement narrowed the scope to “gender X”. It could mean intersex people, it could mean genderqueer people, it could means transgender people, or it could mean all of the above.

The Mandarin straw polled individuals from each of those groups; each thought the statement referred to the other two groups, not their own.

A reading of Defence’s position in light of the AGD guidelines would suggest the department is concerned about the impact of both biological and identity non-binary gender people on Defence’s capability.

Banning a ‘political’ non-binary gender identity would mean something entirely different from banning intersex status. Would those affected be discharged, or would they be required to conform to a specific gender, if that’s even possible in their case?

These details matter significantly to the “very few” individuals who are currently recorded as gender X in Defence personnel records. Defence says it is providing appropriate support to the individuals concerned.

Sex/gender and capability

Procreation is not a required Defence capability. So what does sex and gender have to do with capability, and what does Defence mean when it says gender X people could be a capability issue?

Defence needs soldiers, sailors and airmen and airwomen who are able to be deployed on operations. Injury, illness and disease, pregnancy and other medical conditions can prevent a person from being deployed, either temporarily or permanently.

Medical Employment Category is used to grade individuals on their short term value to Defence, ranging from 1 (fully deployable right now) to 5 (unfit to serve in any role). It is typically highly pragmatic, taking no value judgement on conditions such as HIV or mental illness beyond how much it would cost to enable that person to be deployed and what risks are involved.

Both intersex people and people who privately identify as genderqueer have been deployed in past operations for Australia. There are transgender personnel deployed on operations right now.

A fair go

There is no cost impact for non-binary gender individuals. Due to the gendered ADF uniforms, they must present exclusively as one gender.

Military historian Dr Noah Riseman noted issues like operational readiness and to protect troop morale were the same arguments used against LGB and then transgender service. “Those bans were lifted and there was no effect on the ADF’s ability to perform.”

Cr Briffa found Department of Defence’s statement last week concerning, but too vague to determine what exactly they are seeking to do.

“I hope Defence do not go down the path of blanket discrimination against people due to a certain attribute. Defence personnel go through all sorts of physical and psychological assessments to ensure their suitability for the role, so this should continue on a case by case basis.”

An intersex person might need hormone replacement therapy. But, Briffa notes, this is also true of many non-intersex people.

“Having an intersex variation is not in itself sufficient reason to refuse a person the ability to serve.”

See also: Edward Santow: moving on from a corrosive culture of silence