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Allowing Alex's sex change shows up a gender-biased Family Court

By Sheila Jeffreys - posted Friday, 23 April 2004

Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson has done good work during his 16 years at the Family Court. The recent report on the serious problem of violence from male partners in child custody cases should cement his reputation as a judge who respects the human rights of women and children. But his decision last week to allow a 13-year-old girl to begin a sex change process breaks this tradition. Make no mistake: the decision violates the rights of this child.

The decision means that the girl named "Alex" will embark on a course of female hormone treatment to suppress menstruation, which can be expected to lead to male hormones at 16, and surgery when she reaches 18. The decision abrogates the child's right to change her mind. And it removes her chance to grow up in a healthy female body and develop her identity long before an age when she'd be considered old enough to drive or drink alcohol.

There are a number of cases in which men, for instance, have come to regret reassignment surgery later in life, and become reconciled to being heterosexual or gay men. But they cannot reclaim their penises and testes. Treating this child as a boy with all the authority of medicine at 13 won't permit her to keep her options open. Male hormone treatment at 16 will narrow her options further, since it will begin irreversible physical changes and make it harder for her to change her mind. Both the female and male hormones may adversely affect her health.


The medical profession's belief in the efficacy of female hormones delivered as hormone replacement therapy, for instance, has been seriously undermined. Treatment with male hormones, which has to continue for life, has risks of liver damage and the shortening of her life.

This decision was reached through an inquisitorial, rather than adversarial, process. Only those elements of the medical profession who support the idea of hormonal and surgical treatment for "gender identity disorder" (GID) were called by the court. They were relied on in reaching its decision as if they speak the "truth". In fact, they should be seen as products of their time and the ideological biases of male dominance.

Indeed, their "truth" should be regarded as political opinion. They rely on the notion that there can be a "female" mind in a male's body and vice versa. Their solution is to use chemicals, amputations, castrations and sterilisations to make the bodies of GID patients fit with their interpretation of what's happening in the patient's mind.

Gender identity clinics can only diagnose the condition using the understandings of gender that exist at this time and place in history. Feminists like myself envisage a time beyond gender when there is no correct way to behave according to body shape. In such a world, it would not be possible to conceive of a gender identity clinic. The idea of GID is a living fossil – that is, an idea from the time when there was considered to be a correct behaviour for particular body types.

Those with penises were supposed to play with particular toys and show "masculinity" such as desires to play aggressive team games and show little emotion. Those with vaginas were supposed to show "femininity" such as desires to be self-denying, do unpaid housework and wear high-heeled shoes. Gender identity clinics enforce correct gender behaviour through retraining, or through hormones and surgery. In this way, the medical profession can be seen to perform a political function as an arm of male dominance.

The reasons why adult women seek reassignment surgery stem from the inequality of women, from male violence and from lesbian oppression. Women who have been abused in childhood seek reassignment so that they can escape the bodies in which they were abused and gain the status of the perpetrator in order to feel safe. Some want to gain privileges they perceive to be open to men. And many feel unable to love women in the bodies of women because of societal repression and hatred of lesbians.


Feminists seek to transform society so that male violence against women and girls will end and so that women may have equal rights and love women while remaining in their healthy female bodies.

But women who seek reassignment believe that a physical solution will solve their individual problems.

Rather, it compounds the damage. The Family Court should not be recommending this solution for a child.

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Article edited by Eliza Brown.
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This article was first published in The Australian on 19 April 2004.

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About the Author

Sheila Jeffreys, associate professor of political science at the University of Melbourne, is author of Unpacking Queer Politics (Polity 2003). Her most recent book addresses these themes in detail: Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West (Routledge, 2005).

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Family Court of Australia
University of Melbourne
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