Iceland’s identity conflict: binaries gone wild

I was reading through my RSS feed last week and stumbled upon this article from the Pioneer Press. In summary of the article, a 15-year-old Icelandic girl named Blaer has been struggling with the Reykjavik District Court because her name “takes a masculine article” in the Icelandic language. Apparently in the Nordic countries of Europe, it’s common to adhere to strict linguistic rules regarding names. Iceland in particular is quite keen on maintaining the original structure of the language spoken nationwide.

The Icelandic Naming Committee (mannanafnanefnd) has five rules that Icelandic parents must consider when naming their child:

  1. be able to have a genitive ending or have been adopted through custom in the Icelandic language,
  2. must be adaptable to the structure of the Icelandic language and spelling conventions and
  3. does not cause the bearer embarrassment
  4. girls should be given a female name and boys should be given male names
  5. no person can have more than three personal names

Former chair of the personal name committee, Andri Árnason, said in an interview in 2002, “the law which specifies that names cannot be borne by both women and men was probably created with the idea in mind that is should be possible to determine from people’s names whether they are male or female.”

This is where Blaer’s problem came into play: according to the committee and in accordance to Icelandic linguistic structures, Blaer could have been the name of a boy or a girl.

I found this absolutely fascinating as I’m taking a class called ‘Gay Men & Homophobia in American Culture’ this semester. One of the first things we talked about was what it means to define oneself (though in class it was in the context of sexuality). My professor pointed out that the reason people are so interested in identification is because it’s human nature to want to be able to categorize people. For example, the connotations of a white gay man are different than the connotations of a white straight man. That is due to the categorizations we, as a society, have been engrained with.

Iceland has taken this obsession with identification to a new level: it is required by the government of the country to categorize your child according to five rules so that everybody can tell what gender your child is.

In a utopian society where everyone identifies as male or female, this system could serve useful. Too bad we live in 2013 where the closest to utopia we know of is Harry Styles in a Burberry shirt.

I can appreciate Iceland wanting to maintain the original structure of a language. Language is the core of culture and changing it with time means that some of that core will be lost. What I can’t agree with, though, is the legalized binary divide that the naming committee instills in the country.

The gender binary adopted into Western society cements the traditional belief that human beings are one of two genders: male or female. People who abide by the gender binary generally believe that the anatomy between the legs matches up with how a person identifies between the ears. This entire concept is shattered when we realize that sex is a biological construct and gender is a social construct.

This creates a new issue with the legalized binary divide that exists in Iceland: naming a child within six months of birth with a name that represents them as male or female completely ignores that the child could grow up and identify as a different gender. This is a problem because those who experience gender identity issues are often attacked with a wide palette of problems that cisgendered people (people who identify as male or female, in accordance with their anatomy) are not: “coming out” to their families, health discrimination, employment discrimination, and harassment from the public. The addition of a required, legal label that mystifies their identity even further only adds to their struggles.

Though, from the articles I read, Blaer does not seem to have any identity issues with her gender, there’s still the problem that a body of power decided the name her mother wanted to call her wasn’t feminine enough.

I don’t think it’s fair for a group of people in some room in Iceland to be able to decide what constitutes as “feminine enough” for something as personal as a birth name. There are children in the world named Ocean, Audio Science, and Jermajesty and I couldn’t even begin to decide whether those names are feminine or masculine.

I go by Sam and that name can be feminine or masculine. What would Iceland do to my name?

There needs to be a way for Iceland to maintain its linguistic roots while managing to be a bit more liberalized in their standards of femininity and masculinity. Realizing that gender is fluid and cannot be decided at birth is something that the Icelandic government needs to achieve. It’s not just Iceland that seems to think people can only be men or women, scoping over the last column on the Wikipedia article on LGBT rights can give you an idea of how the rights of transgendered people exist, or don’t, across the world.

We can’t expect progress to be made for the future when entire countries still live in the beliefs of the past. I hope that one day soon Iceland will realize this and begin to open its eyes (and dictionaries) to a more compassionate, progressive state of living.


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