Issue 24: Head of Earth


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Identity-What the Fuck Is It Anyway?

Identity is elusive. Identity is political. Identity is situational – especially if we want to stay safe.

Take Akani, for example: when I asked them, “How do you identify?” they said that for the sake of work, and politically, they call themselves nonbinary. But personally, they are actually agender. This adaptation of what you use to describe your identity is commonplace for queer people—we need to morph and adapt for our audience’s sake and not our own.

Even Michael does this; depending on who asks them how they identify, they will either choose between bi or pan. “I identify as pan[sexual] but I tell everyone I’m bi[sexual] because I don’t wanna explain what pan[sexual] is.” If the asker is within the LGBTQIA+ community, they would say pan, but if they are not, Michael would rather say bi because it’s “more easy for them to interpret.” Also, they’re tired of the pansexuals-are-attracted-to-pans joke.

Regina answers this ask for the sake of ease of English: “I’m nonbinary,” noting how accuracy is forsaken for the purposes of communicating something clearly. Zero has abandoned using terms and opts for using metaphors: “I feel like a wall painted cream, just a kind of gentle soft glow.” I think this description really captures Zero’s vibe—soft, caring, and like a warm, inviting hug. That’s who Zero feels like to be around.

I also struggle with the “How do you identify?” question. Not because I don’t have an answer, but rather, how do I even begin to package my multitudes in a neat, easy-to-understand, digestible answer?

Broadly, I’m nonbinary. It’s cute, short, simple, and already has some kind of framework for people to understand. But I’ve noticed an uncomfortable shift with the term. When I first discovered nonbinary it articulated a huge FUCK YOU to the fact that gender (at least in the Western conception) is conceptualised as only one of two possibilities. But perhaps this has now softened as we shift from a binary to a trinary.

But I’m also Black and that’s central to my identity.

I’ve been asked why I so willingly call myself nonbinary but I would never call myself “non-white,” and I have been pondering this. Saif has heard this too. But I think this is a false equivalence. On the face of it, they both seem to be descriptions from a point of negation: non-white stems from framing whiteness as default, that the other races outside of white are not even worthy of being named; it is a tactic of othering. Whereas nonbinary was the first articulation of the fact that gender is an oppressive, restrictive binary and thus is inherently limiting. Nonbinary was (is) liberation from this previously unnamed, unacknowledged structure that was assumed to be the natural order of things.
Unfortunately, the government is also involved in our identity; our ID document is proof that we are a person according to the state and thus (theoretically) should accurately reflect who we truly are. South Africa is looking into changing the ID number to accommodate genders and sexes outside of the binary.
Currently, the ID number is composed of your date of birth (the first six numbers), then the seventh digit is indicative of your sex assigned at birth (0-4 is female, 5-9 is male). But most people don’t know this. Saif admits that they have no idea which number stood for their gender—and probably most South Africans do not know either.

The proposal by Home Affairs is confusing, probably because the person who wrote it is confused themselves. There’s a consistent conflation between sex and gender.

Firstly, the proposal lays out definitions for sex and gender sourced from the World Health Organisation: sex is “the different biological and physiological characteristics of males and females” and gender is defined as “the socially constructed characteristics of women and men.” Yet in the same paragraph, the proposal states that intersex is a third gender that is now being considered. It’s kind of in the name that intersex is a term that relates to sex, not gender; nonbinary is the newly mainstreamed “third” gender identity.

And this might seem like semantics, but intersex and nonbinary are very distinct. Although both fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, these are distinct identities, one referring to sex and the other referring to gender, respectively.

Following the global trend, one option proposed is to introduce the letter X as the seventh digit for the third gender option. This has been done in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, some places in Canada, Iceland, and some states in the U.S. like Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. If this proposed change happens, South Africa will be the first country in Africa to recognise a third gender using this X approach.

However, Saif rightfully asks,

How are we changing how South Africans see gender?

The introduction of an X might lead to more discrimination. Akani points out that in the hiring process, if someone has an X in their ID number, they may be brought into the interview to be examined out of intrigue rather than to actually be considered for a position. Without a dedicated public education campaign, introducing an X option would be irresponsible. There needs to be understanding and sensitisation of why this X option is necessary.
But even then, there’s still a problem with third gender options. As Michael puts it, the introduction of a third gender option is not the erosion of gendering and gender roles—three boxes just means three roles. Only three options cannot possibly contain the rich diversity of human experience. Only three options is not as revolutionary as one might think.

The proposal concludes that randomised numbers is the preferred method going forward, citing that this way enhances privacy and security, and is the method preferred by Michael, Regina, and Akani. The government should be thinking of ways to future-proof the system. Akani explained it well: “There’s an inherent limitation to just adding a third gender. Because what happens to the person whose gender is gender-fluid? Do they get two IDs?” Randomisation is eliminating the problem at the source. The current system, with the further introduction of a third gender option, would still need to be supported by an incredible amount of human and time resources dedicated to making these amendments, which is a waste, argues Regina.

But whether the government goes with randomised numbers or an X option, the Identification Act would still require that citizen’s gender categorisation—a randomisation is not the abolition of the government noting down people’s genders, it’s just that your ID number would not contain this biometric information—but your identity document still will.

Whether our identity documents will ever be able to capture the broadness of our identities, it seems that for at least our lifetimes the government will still concern itself with how we answer the elusive question: how do you identify?


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