2010 – Trans* Sex Worker Activist Norrie May-Welby Instigates Legal Challenge to Have Gender Recognised as ‘Non-Specific’ (Australia)

 “It’s important for people to have equal rights in society. Why should people be left out because they’re seen as not male or female? They should be recognised wherever they are and allowed to participate in society at an equal level.”

In 2010, a media-savvy Sydney-based trans*sex worker and community activist, Norrie May-Welby, initiated court proceedings against the New South Wales (NSW) Government Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages to have their gender recognised as ‘non-specific’ on official documents.

In 2010, the Registry initially recognised Norrie as being neither male nor female and issued them with a certificate stating that their gender was ‘not specified’; however, due to intense media responses to the issue and subsequent political pandering, on 17 April, 2010, the Registry issued Norrie with a letter of cancellation stating that Norrie’s documents had been ‘issued in error’, and that their certificate was formally revoked.

Subsequently, Norrie, whom doctors had stated was a ‘neuter’ (a person with no sex organs and a self-image which identifies as neither male nor female), instigated Court proceedings against the Registry. Initially, Norrie went to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to challenge the decision, however lost the case.

Following on, in addition to filing a subsequent complaint with the Court of Appeal, Norrie also lodged a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Norrie; however, the Registry did not accept the Court ruling and appealed the Court’s decision.

In challenging the Court’s decision to uphold Norrie’s appeal, the Registry lodged their appeal with the High Court, the national senior law court. The argument used by the Registry was that it would cause ‘unacceptable confusion’ to the Registry institution if the NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act (1995) were to include options for more than two genders. Norrie countered the argument stating that by being forced to identify as only a male or female would ‘maintain a fiction’.

Image of Norrie May-Welby's passport; "not specified" is written under the category "sex."
Australian law “recognises a person may be other than male or female.”

After a protracted legal battle which lasted for 4 years, in April 2014, the High Court ruled that it was within the Registry’s power to record and issue Norrie with documents identifying a ‘not specific’ gender.

In summing up the case, the High Court stated that sex affirmation surgery ‘did not resolve sexual ambiguity’. Similarly, the 5 person High Court panel ruling on the decision, which effectively recognised the non-binary nature of gender by acknowledging a third gender and people of ‘indeterminable sex’, said, ‘The Act itself recognises that a person may be other than male or female and therefore may be taken to permit the registration sought, as “non-specific”.’ The High Court also ordered the Registry to cover Norrie’s legal expenses.

Of the decision, Norrie said:

 “It’s important for people to have equal rights in society. Why should people be left out because they’re seen as not male or female? They should be recognised wherever they are and allowed to participate in society at an equal level.”

See also: this video interview (2012) featured on Norrie’s blog: