The happy eunuch
27 June 2010
On a Sydney hospital operating table on April 3, 1989, between the hours of 2pm and 4pm, Scotland-born, Perth-raised Norrie, then aged 27, ceased to have a penis when the appendage was inverted to a vagina.
Back then, Norrie identified as “transsexual” – a woman born inside a man’s body – but these days the 49-year-old is a self-described “happy eunuch” and, yes, still has nerve endings below.
“My youngest sister was clearest about me,” recalls Norrie, sitting in a busy, cluttered lounge at home in Redfern, having fled Perth for Sydney in 1988 to escape persecution.
“She would say, ‘Some people are girls, and some people are boys. Norrie’s a mix; if you can understand ‘girl’ and ‘boy’, you can understand Norrie’.”
Living as a boy, Norrie had changed his middle sister’s nappies in the family’s Perth home when she was a baby; the experience “taught me unconditional love”.
In turn, for most of their lives now, siblings Heather and Moira have seen Norrie, who had been on female hormones since age 23, in 1985, as their eldest sister.
While their mother Marion accepted Norrie’s fluid identity, Norrie’s late father, a plumber by trade, “said he accepted me as his child but still had some funny judgements”.
Dressed today in a cool, multicoloured tie-dye outfit, hair piled high and pushed to the side, Norrie deliberately confuses notions of fixed gender identity.
The hormones ceased years ago – evidenced by Norrie’s flat chest – while the higgledy-piggledy adopted surname, mAy-welby, is both a pun and a clever evasive retort to questions of: What are you?
The mostly lower-case surname letters are the form their owner has used since creating a chat handle in the early days of the internet, a place where, from the beginning, you could be whoever you wanted to be; the capital “A” might well stand for anarchy.
“Well, it’s to rearrange capital,” Norrie offers with a subversive smile, “put it in the middle for a fairer distribution”.
Gender ambiguity might threaten some people, but it opens some doors: “Although I may use the ladies’ loos for convenience,” says Norrie, “I use the men’s change rooms at the pool if I am with gay male friends”.
No account of Norrie’s story can get too far without making some grammatical decisions. While some people fighting Norrie’s cause to be legally recognised as neither male nor female employ gender-neutral pronouns such as “hir” or “zhe”, Norrie, to make communication easier, is personally comfortable being referred to as “her” and “she”.
That’s a curiously conciliatory gesture, given Norrie has taken the NSW Government to the federal Human Rights Commission for allegedly breaching the United Nations Charter on Human Rights after the Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, told State Parliament that a recognised details certificate declaring Norrie’s “sex not specified” had been “issued in error”.
Katrina Fox, editor-in-chief of
, the online magazine that broke the news the certificate had been issued – and who favours gender-neutral pronouns – has known Norrie nearly a decade, describing “hir” as “an articulate, colourful, intelligent and passionate person willing to put hir neck on the line and speak out about being different”.
Norrie is the first Australian to have been issued with a non gender-specific identification document in replacement of an existing birth certificate, albeit briefly. In 2003, another androgynous person, Alex MacFarlane, was issued an Australian passport identifying the holder as neither male nor female but as X.
Such instances are rare anywhere in the world. A couple of countries, notably India, have in recent years begun offering a non-gender specific option on passport applications, while Nepal has reportedly issued at least one non gender-specific identity card to a citizen.
But Hatzistergos told the NSW Parliament in March that after the news of Norrie’s certificate being issued was “ventilated” in the media, his department’s director-general had discussed the matter with the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriage.
Legal advice then obtained from the Crown Solicitor stated “that the registrar may only issue a recognised detail certificate or a new birth certificate following a change of sex in either male or female gender”.
In other words, Norrie would be forced to choose an identity, and couldn’t occupy the middle ground.
The Attorney-General added he was “advised that the registrar could request a return of the certificate … [given] it was issued in error, but has determined in the circumstances that he does not propose to take this action, although he has advised Norrie that the certificate is invalid”.
What does Norrie’s case mean for society as a whole? “Well, the sky didn’t fall in during the days Norrie had the ‘sex not specified’ document,” says Katrina Fox. “Hir fight will mean that the growing numbers of people who do not conform to binary sex or gender models will no longer be afraid to speak out about who they are.
“Hopefully, this will lead to a broader understanding of sex and gender identity and concepts of man and woman and masculinity and femininity, and evolve us as a species.”
Norrie could not have foreseen becoming the poster person for gender fluidity. Born in the rough town of Paisley on May 23, 1961, Norrie’s family fled “classist” Scotland for a better life in a place said to be more egalitarian, Australia.
Arriving in Perth aged seven, in 1968, it was a lonely childhood at times. “I used to tie long ribbons from my hair and pretend I had girly features, girly hair. When no one was looking, I’d skip and jump…
“I was fairly isolated from other kids, often had my head in a book. But you get that,” Norrie laughs. “If you’re at a certain end of the distribution curve in terms of intelligence, there might not be that many people you
to talk to.”
On arriving in Sydney, Norrie stayed in a refuge for transsexual people, finding camaraderie and acceptance, but Norrie wrote in autobiographical notes published on the web that wider society could still be dangerous: “In the ‘straight world’, I was treated as a liar if I did not reveal my transsexuality, and a pariah if I did.
“I was abused by men, sometimes for being a transsexual, often for just being female. I was taken from a nightclub by five guys who, unaware of my transsexual status, raped me. All this happened within the first year of changing sex. I stopped going to straight nightclubs. I no longer wanted to live as a normal heterosexual woman.”
An epiphany would come when staring into a campfire in 1992 at the Confest hippie festival at Tocumwal, wondering what identity to adopt in the world. Norrie came up with the term “spansexual”; the term is intended to bridge divisions between gender, gender identity, sexual preference or orientation.
And Norrie’s own sexuality? “I’d be the perfect androgyne if I was completely omnisexual, but I’m only monosexual. Just think of me as a big queen girl.”
That doesn’t narrow matters down too much: seven years ago, Norrie had intended getting married to a man, which all sounds quite conventional – had the law accepted Norrie as female, of course, which would have been contestable given others had known Norrie as androgynous for so long, and had the relationship not petered out.
“We had a commitment ceremony, and I viewed that as an engagement, but the relationship fell apart very quickly after that, so I’m glad I didn’t take measures to legalise it. It wasn’t the time. Dodged the bullet!”
For some years, Norrie worked as a prostitute along William Street. What did those experiences glean about human identity and sexuality? “That it’s very broad and flexible and adjustable. People adjust to what they find when they’re horny and wanting some human companionship.”
In her 1994 book
Gender Outlaw: on Men, Women and the Rest of Us
, US author Kate Bornstein, who also underwent gender reassignment surgery from male to female, suggests eliminating gender as a system given it limits people’s sexuality as well as their identities.
Bornstein adds this idea frightens people because, if they are sexually attracted to someone whose gender is ambiguous, what does that attraction make them?
Does Norrie think Bornstein’s idea is a good one? “I think it’s a good idea to eliminate it as a system, as a trap, [but] I don’t think you can eliminate gender [all together] because everyone’s got gender and expresses it between each other and it varies from time.
“Sometimes I might feel girly, like throwing on makeup, or doing feminine things. Other times I might feel like doing masculine things.
“If you meet someone that relates to you in a feminine or masculine way, you may adjust how you relate to them. Your gender shifts; there is gender – there’s just a quality that shifts, like yin and yang; it’s not something that should be nailed to us like jam jars, that that’s how we’re labeled.”
Will we really “evolve” as a less rigidly defined species, as Fox suggests? “I think it’s inevitable,” says Norrie. “Society does change. A couple of hundred years ago, a lot of us thought slavery was OK. One hundred years ago, a lot of us thought women not having the vote was OK. Times change.
“Race used to be part of our legal documentation, our religious denomination used to be part of our identity; that’s shifted. You didn’t used to be allowed to be openly gay. It’s illegal to discriminate against someone who is transgender. Now I hope the UN will uphold my complaint and find it’s illegal to discriminate against someone who has no specified sex.”