The Numerus Clausus of Sex
106 Pages Posted: 21 Jun 2017
Date Written: June 21, 2017
There is a fundamental revolution under way regarding the relationship between gender and the state, both domestically and internationally. Across the world, the rise and visibility of transgender rights movements have forced a persistent rethinking of the cornerstone legal presumptions associated with science, sex, and gender. As many people, along with multiple courts, colleges, and workplaces, now recognize, the binary presumptions of male and female identity are largely outdated and often fail to capture the complexity of identity and expression. The question for legal scholars and legislatures is how the law can and should respond to this complexity.
Taking this observation as an invitation, this Article provides a different way to conceive of the relationship between sex and gender that might provide another vantage point in demonstrating the limits of our jurisprudence. Drawing on Professor Cheryl Harris’s groundbreaking article exploring whiteness as property published in the Harvard Law Review over twenty years ago, this Article argues that, in order to understand the relationship between sex and gender, it might be helpful to explore a parallel type of affiliation between identity, property, and intellectual property. My thesis is that sex is to gender as property is to intellectual property. Unpacking this further, this Article argues that, instead of thinking of sex as a construct of biology alone, it might be helpful for us to reconceptualize state-assigned sex along the lines of tangible property—bordered, seemingly fixed, rivalrous, and premised on a juridical presumption of scarcity in terms of its rigid polarities of male and female. In contrast, regarding gender, I argue that thinking through gender as a performance, if taken seriously, also suggests that gender is more akin to intellectual property—permeable, malleable, unfixed, nonrivalrous—and ultimately deeply nonexclusive. Normatively, I argue that a model of gender pluralism is an important framework with which to examine the importance of gender diversity and fluidity.
Keywords: transgender rights, gender, human rights, sex discrimination, property theory, performance studies
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