On the night of Tuesday 10 August, Australia’s population came under the microscope. The 2021 Census counted the number of engineers, of Buddhists, and single person households. It recorded the number of cars and tabulated our diseases. It even counted past and present ADF personnel.
But it didn’t count me. As in previous years, the 2021 Census failed to count the trans and gender diverse (TGD) community. In fact, it didn’t record gender at all, instead only asking participants about their sex. Male or Female? The online form asked. A small hyperlink offered a third way: Select something other than male or female. If clicked, the form refreshed to add another tick-box option: Non-binary sex.
This Census question clumsily conflates sex and gender in ways that prevent the TGD population from being legible. Trans and gender diverse people are those who experience incongruence between their assigned sex and their gender identity. Because the Census only asks about sex, it cannot capture this incongruence. As a result, transness remains invisible. In response to the sex question, some trans people may have given their assigned sex; others will have ticked the box that best fits their gender. Either way, there’s no way to determine whether they’re trans or otherwise.
Then there’s those people outside the gender binary. Clearly, the reference to ‘non-binary sex’ is a nod to this community. But what even is ‘non-binary sex’? There are nonbinary people, but their identity is not a matter of sex. Everyone’s sex is assigned at birth, and almost all newborns are deemed male or female (intersex people being the exception here). No one has ‘non-binary’ listed on their birth certificate. This is because nonbinary isn’t a matter of biological sex but rather gender identity. Nonbinary has nothing to do with chromosomes or genitals; it’s an umbrella term used to describe people who live beyond the binary of man and woman. ‘Non-binary sex’ is hence a bizarre misnomer that’s unable to count the actual nonbinary population. Worst of all, data from this option won’t even be included. When analysing the Census, the ABS will randomly classify ‘non-binary sex’ people as either male or female.
This leaves me with a conundrum. How do I make my gender legible on a Census that refuses to see it? At the sex question, I hesitate, unable to choose between several bad options. I was proclaimed a girl when I tumbled out of the womb at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital, some thirty-three years ago. But if I tick the F box, the state will deem me a woman. This is an error. Despite my ovaries and breasts, I am no woman. But nor am I ‘non-binary sex’ – a nonsensical category that has no purchase or meaning outside this Census, and which won’t even be included in the analysed data.
The truth is that I’m trans – neither woman nor man, a creature outside or beyond the binary, a human ever unresolved but very much alive. But in the eyes of the state, that reality simply does not exist. I cannot be counted; therefore, I am erased. My life, along with other nonbinary and gender diverse lives, is made inconceivable. We are reduced to shadow citizens, living outside the realm of the possible. Hidden behind false signifiers, who knows how many of us there are? Without accurate Census data, we’ll never know.
And as a result, the state will be unable to allocate appropriate funding and services to the trans and gender diverse community. So long as we’re uncounted, we’ll be left unknown and unsupported, with basic citizenship rights – healthcare, public amenities – denied to us.
There is nothing remarkable about this latest #CensusFail. In the continent known as Australia, a refusal to recognise diverse genders is par for the course. Public toilets are labelled M and F. Clothing stores are divided into menswear and womenswear. MCs welcome ‘ladies and gentlemen’. When I sign up for the local Parkrun, I must declare myself man or woman. There is no third option. If I contract Covid, I’ll be reported in the media as a ‘woman in her thirties’.
The architecture of everyday life refuses to recognise the likes of me. ‘Computer says no’, as receptionist Carol Beer says on Little Britain – only, in this case, the computer is the whole world.
As a result, every time I venture into public, I feel myself disappear. I see a world constructed around cisnormative binary gender and I hear: you are not possible. Your gender cannot exist. Faced with such epistemic erasure, it’s hard not to fade away. It’s hard not to doubt your own knowledge. After a day in public, I feel myself reduced into something fantastical, a spirit or ghost. Unreal, impossible.
Then, I go home, sit at my computer, and write myself back into being. Word by word, I swim against the tide that would wipe me away. Through language, I insist upon my existence.
Language makes the world. It generates categories and concepts that delimit what is and isn’t possible. For the longest time, I had no language to name the difference that lived in my bones from early childhood. All I knew was that girlhood was a test I was forever on the verge of failing, a test I should never have been sitting in the first place. There’d been a mistake, somewhere along the lines, but the exact nature of that error hovered outside the edges of what could be seen and known.
Without the right words, my world was shrouded by fog. Things were wrong, I was wrong, but it was impossible to grasp the root of the problem. There was only an endless twilight, haunted by a vague but stubborn unease. Sometimes that unease became depression, other times anorexia or anxiety. Its outward form evolved but the underlying wrongness remained unchanged.
It was writing that saved me. First came the writing of others, trans and gender diverse trailblazers, whose words opened up new windows in my mind. For the first time, I could see the nature of the problem: my gender did not align with my assigned sex. My gender – the place that felt like home – was something generally deemed impossible, something I’d waited thirty years to see named. It was in me all along but needed the right words to be brought to life – a seed waiting for proper nourishment to germinate.
Then, armed with these new words, I began writing myself into being. We often speak of gender transition as comprising social transition (names, clothes, pronouns) and/or medical transition (hormones, surgery). I’ve pursued both with vigour but, in some ways, each was less important than the work of remaking myself through words on the page. I affirmed my gender through writing as much as via a new wardrobe and a tube of testosterone cream.
Writing explained me to myself. It explained me to other people. It gifted me collective identity and community. It transmuted shame and isolation into shared struggle. Above all, writing was a refusal to be deemed an impossible proposition.
In some ways, the hardest part about living outside or beyond the gender binary is the relentless gaslighting. Here we are, we say, count us, give us toilets, protect our rights, respect our dignity, give us appropriate healthcare, include us in conversations about gender equity. In response, we are met with silence or bafflement. Did somebody hear something? Or: computer says no! Either way, the outcome is the same. Let’s carry with normal proceedings, ladies and gentlemen, you fine men and women of Australia.
It’s as though not-men and not-women can’t even exist. It’s as though we don’t know our own minds.
Of course, ‘Australia’ is part of the problem. As explained by Wiradjuri nonbinary researcher Professor Sandy O’Sullivan, enforcing the gender binary is a core part of the colonial project. In this continent, and around the world, many First Nations cultures recognised diverse genders that were later repressed and denied by colonisers intent upon cultural genocide. Until 1967, the Australian Census didn’t count First Nations peoples. Today, it still doesn’t count trans or gender diverse folk. White settler TGD people like myself are beneficiaries of and are complicit in settler colonialism and white supremacy – but both exclusions are acts of a settler colonial state using bureaucratic technologies to police the boundaries of citizenship.
Writing is resistance against this epistemic domination. When nonbinary and gender diverse people write, we are testifying – insisting upon the legitimacy of our own ways of being and knowing. You could call this speaking truth to power. But it’s also about contesting the very nature of truth. Trans testimonial is about honouring the knowledges that come from the body, knowledges that may contradict ‘common-sense’ or social norms yet are no less true or real. When I write my transness, I am choosing to ignore the whole world calling me woman and instead listen to the small yet insistent voice in my gut that tells me otherwise.
This is no easy task. Not only is it tempting to succumb to the world’s deafening ‘truth’, but it’s also hard to take heed of a body that’s often felt like a betrayal. Like so many trans people, I’ve long been at war with my own skin. My body was too soft, too fleshy – too feminine. It was a prison; not a source of knowledge. To listen to my body, to hear its whispers instead of whipping it into shape, was – is – the great work of my life.
To listen is one thing; to find the words is another. Writing transness is a groping through dark, slow and beset by stumbles. Our language is so attached to binary gender. How to find the words to translate embodied knowledge when our words bear the history of normative gender ideas? I was once deemed aunt to my brother’s children; now I’m neither aunt nor uncle. Our narrow English language has as yet no word to describe our relationship. (Though ‘niblings’ is widely used as a gender-neutral alternative to niece and nephew.) ‘Nonbinary’ is another case in point – a negative identity, defined against the binary, ensuring the binary itself remains front and centre. For this reason, I prefer ‘trans’, that elegant prefix for all things that move, repurposed to name an identity that refuses to be tied down and known.
The words are imperfect, flawed approximations of the knowledges we seek to share. But on a good day, with the wind blowing in the right direction, those words might nudge someone to listen to their own gut. Those words might be sparks that help fuel other gender insurrections. I await those fires with glee. For each time someone burns their gender script, and writes a new story for themselves, we all taste a little more freedom.
In the brief window between Melbourne’s Lockdown 4 and 5, I stood on a stage holding a book. It was a special issue of Bent Street, a queer journal, dedicated to trans and gender diverse writing. A labour of love co-edited by me and Sam Elkin, the book came in at just over two hundred pages and had a pleasing weight in my hand. It felt like a weapon. Before me sat several dozen queers, contributors and friends, whose seats curved around the spot-lit stage, their posture reverential, as though we’d assembled to pray. The scene had the outward trappings of a polite book launch, but it felt infused with a wild subversive energy – a kind of delighted defiance. I saw it on the faces of the trans writers who rose to read their words, and again in the nervous chitchat that later fizzed around the room.
Here we are, the whole room seemed to say. All of us gender rebels who dwell, unseen, unrepresented, uncounted, outside the limits of the binary. We’ve come together to insist upon our collective reality; we’ve turned our individual joys and pain into a hefty tome that could give someone a right whack across the face. Look at all the different ways there are to be human.
The author copies of my memoir All About Yves arrived on my doorstep several weeks later, on the same day as my Census papers were delivered. A coincidence with a strange poetry. Here was a thin envelope that betokened trans erasure alongside a box of books that was my effort to speak back. As I raged against the failures of the Census, I took a grim satisfaction in the fact that the books dwarfed the flimsy papers. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
The world says we aren’t possible. In response, we lay sentences like bricks to build essays, books, stories that proclaim our existence for all to see. Here we are. Feel the weight of these words. You can deny us, but you can’t deny what we’ve made.
Join Yves Rees, along with Jazz Money, Roanna Gonsalves and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, for a public webinar on Friday 17 September about the role of writing in generating new knowledge and understandings around gender. Find out more and register here.