Coober Pedy News
       No. 60                                                      9 July  2004


Archived copy 

When is a person not a person?

"This is madness," you say.

"What's the point - a person is a person is a person - how can a person not be a person?"

Please, be patient.

First of all, let's look at dictionary definitions of the word 'person':

1. A character in a play
2. The bodily form (outward appearance) of a human being
3. A living, self-conscious being, as distinct from an animal or a thing
4. A human being spoken of indefinitely

The first case is easy - take Hamlet, the character who said the often repeated words, 'To be, or not to be…that is the question.' And from the same Shakespearian play, Hamlet's girlfriend Ophelia. Hamlet is a person in the play. So is Ophelia. Hamlet is a man. Ophelia is a woman. Each is a person in the play, yet one is a man, the other is a woman.

The second case: Also easy - a tall man, a short man, a tall woman, a short woman - four persons altogether, of different appearance.

The third: Consider a room in which is a man and a dog and a chair, another room in which is a woman and a cat and a table, and a third room in which is a boy and a mouse and a cupboard, and a fourth room in which is a girl and a budgie and a birdcage. In each room is a person and an animal and a thing. Altogether there are four persons in the rooms.

The last case: Police investigated three robberies, one in which money was stolen from man's wallet which he left on the wash table in a public toilet, another in which lollies were stolen from a storage area in a deli, and another in which a skirt was found to be missing from a rack in a clothing store. The police statement read that three robberies were committed by a person or persons unknown. We might assume that the money was stolen by a boy or a man seeing it happened in a male toilet, that the lollies were stolen by a child, either a boy or girl it would be impossible to tell, and the skirt most likely stolen by a woman.

Now in all these four examples the word person is used as a noun, and the gender is irrelevant.

Here's a case in which to consider whether a person is, or is not, a person.

A man decides to ride a pushbike from Darwin to Queanbeyan, towing three or four linked trailers behind the bike, and with a sense of humour he puts a regulation yellow and black "Road Train" sign on the front, and a "Long Vehicle - 6 metres" at the rear. He arrives in Coober Pedy and is spotted by a news photographer. Photos are taken and a story is told.

The bike rider says he is a 'Transgender' - half man and half woman. He is taking one lot of pills to stop his facial whisker growth and another lot to enlarge his breasts. The reporter says he is not interested in the sexual preferences of the bike rider and won't use the word 'transgender' in the story. The bike rider says to use the word 'person' instead, because he doesn't want to be described as a "man riding a bike", nor can he be described as a "woman riding a bike" because he hasn't finished his 'changes', and the word 'person' would fit because a 'person' is gender neutral, which is what he says he is because he is making the change from a man to a woman.

The reporter says it would not be news to say that a person is riding a bike, across Australia or anywhere else. After all, an animal would not ride a bike, nor would a thing ride a bike. So what is the big deal about a 'person' riding a bike. The reporter says that the rider is a man who doesn't want to be a man and thinks he will be happier if he has the outward appearance of a woman. But he won't use the word 'person' to describe a person who thinks they are neither a man nor a woman.

He says the rider -

* is not a character in a play - he is a real live human being;
* is more than an outward appearance signifying masculinity or femininity;
* does not need to be described in a way that distinguishes him from an animal or a thing; and
* is not being spoken of in an indefinite manner - he has been interviewed and has produced an ID (albeit showing a woman's first name), and has given his name and has had a ten minute conversation with the reporter who is seeking to write about him doing a very unusual thing of riding a funny bike across Australia.

To use the gender neuter noun word 'person' as a quasi-adjective to qualify one's sexual status is not on.

In other words, this is one time when a person is not a person.