The XX Factor

“Is My Marriage Gay?’

A few days late to this one, but author Jennifer Finney Boylan had a great essay in Monday’s New York Times about how complex the gay marriage issue becomes one when of the partners is transgender . Because different states have different regulations as to who “counts” as male or female-i.e., whether the determination relies on the gender you were assigned at birth or the gender you self-identify with, and whether or not surgery affects that determination-the landscape can get very muddled very quickly. Boylan quotes a lawyer from a 1999 case concerning a transgendered woman, Christie Lee Littleton, whose biologically male husband had passed away. See if you can manage to follow along:

… Mrs. Littleton, while in San Antonio, Tex., is a male and has a void marriage; as she travels to Houston, Tex., and enters federal property, she is female and a widow; upon traveling to Kentucky she is female and a widow; but, upon entering Ohio, she is once again male and prohibited from marriage; entering Connecticut, she is again female and may marry; if her travel takes her north to Vermont, she is male and may marry a female; if instead she travels south to New Jersey, she may marry a male.

Confusing, right? Even Boylan-an incredibly lucid, intelligent writer-sometimes has a tough time pinning down these complex concepts into simple language. Originally I’d wanted to pull out this paragraph for my blog post, but then for the life of me couldn’t understand the last sentence:

Gender involves a lot of gray area. And efforts to legislate a binary truth upon the wide spectrum of gender have proven only how elusive sexual identity can be. The case of J’noel Gardiner, in Kansas, provides a telling example. Ms. Gardiner, a postoperative transsexual woman, married her husband, Marshall Gardiner, in 1998. When he died in 1999, she was denied her half of his $2.5 million estate by the Kansas Supreme Court on the ground that her marriage was invalid. Thus in Kansas, any transgendered person who is anatomically female is now allowed to marry only another woman.

What does “anatomically female” mean here? Someone who was born female, or someone who was born male and has had sex reassignment surgery? After consulting with a friend who works at an LGBT organization on precisely these kinds of language issues, he confirmed that Boylan probably meant the latter. The fixation on surgery and genitalia as some kind of marker for what “makes” a man or a woman is inherently problematic, but it’s not likely to go away any time soon-the concept is too culturally hard-wired for most of us to abandon completely. Until then, let’s just hope we have more people like Boylan, helping us parse things out, one step at a time.