Last Wednesday, Norrie May Welby made history—she became the first Australian to be formally recognized as being gender non-specific. Born a male, Norrie underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1989, only to resolve on identifying with neither sides of the field. She was granted gender neutrality from the Registry for Births Deaths and Marriages in 2010, but they rapidly revoked the ruling, and she’s battled with the courts since then.
The unanimous verdict means Australia now recognizes a third, non-specific genre, with Norrie as the face of the faction. Oddly enough, the decision comes before the country has introduced same sex marriage—it could be argued that it make more sense to generate equality for the existing genders before bringing new players to the game. Norrie, who changed her name for enhanced androgyny, is making headlines locally and abroad. She’s even earned a coveted page on Wikipedia. She's an ardent social activist regularly rallying for refuges and equality and she’s been hustling for sexuality rights since the early 1990s, making last weeks victory a weighty milestone.
When visiting her home in Sydney, we conversed about cartoons, mountains, and marriage.
VICE: I’m sure you’re sick to death of this question, but which pronoun do you prefer?
Norrie May Welby: I’m ok with she or her. I’m a little old to get my head around the “zie” business. I’m comfortable with anything really so long as it’s used respectfully.
Why was Australia the first western country to recognize this?
Australia has long been a world leader in terms of equality. We were one of the first places in the world to give woman the right to vote back in 1894, so I think it’s logical that we would lead the pack for this too.
What would you say the outcome means for Australia?
It’s still early so we don’t know the ramifications yet. But it certainly opens things up for people who don’t fit the gender binary (or whose partners don’t).
Do you know many other people who will follow suit?
Quite a few of my friends, as well as a wealth of people from around the world, have told me that I’ve inspired them to pursue the same thing.
What does the result mean to you personally?
I’m thrilled. The high court judges put themselves in myself and the others that don’t fit the binaries show, and demanded that the law accept everyone equally. It’s also a bit of a weight off my shoulders, as I’ve been pursuing the case for several years now.
Was there any sort of physical examinations in reaching the verdict?
The judge needed doctor’s certificates from a medical center I’ve been attending to prove my sex was non-specific. After I handed them in, the doctors were called and quizzed about everything.
Apart from the media, have you received any notable offers?
I have indeed. I received a marriage proposal from my best friend and I have happily accepted. The United Nations guarantees the rights of all persons to marry and form a family. I may be neither man nor woman, but I’m a person nonetheless.
What are the origins of “spansexual”?
I coined the term in the mid 90s. Span is like a bridge, and sex is like a division (the word sex is from the latin word for sect or section). The way I perceive myself is, I span the divide between male and female. Like a bridge, I’m in both places at once.
Nice. On your blog, I read a profound analogy which related gender to Yin and Yang. Would you mind outlining this?
So Yin represents female and is the the light side of the mountain, and yang represents male and is the darkness. The masculine is always inside the feminine. When it comes to the mountain, the light will change as the day progresses. It’s meaningless to give your address as “the dark side of the mountain”, for as the sun moves, the dark side becomes the light side.
The two sides are relative to each other. So when you describe your gender as Yin or Yang, you also have to acknowledge that’s something that’s changing all the time. There is such a thing as Yin and Yang, but they’re not fixed immutable qualities.
One of Norrie's political cartoons published in the South Sydney Herald in 2010
I understand you’re also a cartoonist. Have you done any illustrations that convey matters of gender?
In 1997, I did a work called “the brief cartoon guide to sex gender and transgender.” It’s available online.
What’s your take on the significance of gender today? Outside of this case, would you say gender roles are becoming more or less important?
I think gender roles are definitely being destabilized, and my court case is a testament to this. That said, some stereotypes die hard.
Lastly, do you have any advice to people who are uncomfortable with their gender?
Give yourself permission to be who you are, regardless of whether that has a standard gender label, or is the opposite gender label, or anything else. Accept that who you are is going to be OK.