the state assigns sex at birth
January 14, 2015
My brain is still thinking about this ask I got yesterday about asab beyond whiteness and I realize that I want to develop or more fully articulate that point about asab (assigning sex at birth) as a mechanism for state population control.
At this point, I”m assuming that most people will have accepted the proposition that sex and gender are both social constructions. I”m not going to get into that debate. One of the reasons a lot of people still think that sex has some real ontological force behind it is this notion that it is grounded in biology and, thus, grounded in our embodied selves. As in, sex is real insofar as our bodies are real. And since most (but not all) people are willing to admit that our bodies do, in actual fact, exist so too must sex. And since sex is a real thing, then it can be understood and known. But it is also stable and, for the most part, unchanging.
So goes the folk understanding of sex and biology and the ontology therein.
Of course, the problem, for me, is that getting into the biology or even the sociology of this is somewhat besides the point. Because for all that, yes it is doctors who assign people a sex a birth, the purpose behind these assignations aren”t medical but political. And as a political artifact birth certificates are a fairly new and modern invention that cannot be and should not be generalized to all peoples everywhere in an ahistorical fashion. Not when it serves a specific, political purpose.
If you want to know how recent an invention birth certificates are, you only need to look at the current attempt to disenfranchise Black voters in the US with identification laws. There are living Black elders who have become disenfranchised voters because they weren”t issued birth certificates and, thus, have a great deal of trouble properly identifying themselves to the state.
Think about what birth certificates are: they are documents that every person — born within states that have them (which, by this point is most of them) — must have for the purposes of identification. This is, afterall, your first piece of state identification. It is often one of the most important, as it is generally needed (at least in Canada and the US) to prove your citizenship which grants you access to a passport and other important things.
Birth certificates are all about population control because they are one way for the government to know whenever any new baby appears within their jurisdiction. And once you are identified by the state, you are already immediately subject to its control.
But the thing about this, is that these documents need to contain enough information so as to uniquely identify every single living person within the government”s jurisdiction. There can be no room for ambiguity. And so your birth certificate is intended to capture certain unchanging facts about you that can allow the state to uniquely identify you. Facts like your name, place of birth, date of birth, and your sex.
And while you can change your name, the process is quite labourious and requires that you get a new birth certificate because, again, this document records unchanging facts. You can usually only change the other parts if you want to correct an error (spelling mistakes with names and whatever). For quite some time and still in many places, it is impossible to change your sex marker. Literally impossible. Doesn”t matter what doctors you”ve seen, what surgeries you”ve had, this is understood as an unchangeable biological fact1.
All of this? Is a really new and modern convention. It isn”t even a hundred years old for fuck”s sake.
So the question about how indigenous gender systems handled ‘asab” is… off the mark. We can look into how they handled gender. How they might”ve sorted people into certain expected gender roles. All of this, but we can”t really ask about how they assigned a sex at birth without really invoking this modern context of biology and state policy, which provides a framework where assigning as sex at birth is coherent in the first place. Essentially, it is an incoherent question to ask about indigenous gender systems and asab without any clear prior exposition of the contect of the systems themselves.