Hacking the Cis-tem

M. Hicks, "Hacking the Cis-tem," in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 20-33, 1 Jan.-March 2019, doi: 10.1109/MAHC.2019.2897667.

This historical analysis examines how the British government "program[med] trans people out" of the early computer system designed for tax benefits to British citizens. Hicks examines how trans citizens attempted to resist and work around transphobic bureaucratic systems. Hicks argues that particularly in the late 19th and early 20th century, gender performance became increasingly tied with the state. The post-war 1950s Britain sought a "return to normalcy" including the criminalization of homosexuality and the diminished pay and tax benefits of women, necessitating a heterosexist reliance on men. National ID cards which listed birth name and gender led many trans people to suffer unemployability with no legal ability to change their IDs. In the 1950s through the 1970s in Britain, hundreds of trans people began writing to government institutions like the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance to get the benefits they'd been paying into as cis people. As they came out, the government began to create a secret list of trans people, which the government shared with medical officers in an attempt to evaluate trans identity. Granting permission to change gender markers was handled on a case by case basis. Hicks writes: "In this way, changing the records held by the state was bound up within not only medicalizing discourses, but also ideals about class, sexual and gender normativity, and economic worthiness." However, within government infrastructuers, there was no possible way to "change sex"; updating sex was done through a process of regarding the original listed sex as incorrect. Thus, official witnesses, like doctors, had to report on behalf of the individual there was an error in recording the sex on one's birth certificate. This also worked to cover up that the person was actually transgender on paper, which still worked discursively to construct gender as an immutable binary in the eyes of the state.

While burdensome on paper, it became more bureaucratic as government systems became increasingly computerized. Digitization actually led to less flexibility for trans people. Describing how the digital system made trans lives harder, Hicks wrote:

"Onstead of regularizing the procedures for trans citizens in a way that incorporated their accounts seamlessly into the new system's data structures and programming, the Ministry took advantage of this technological change to reverse course. No longer would trans citizens’ requests for gender changes be honored: Instead, they would be told that the new system did not “see” gender, and that, therefore, there was now no reason for the Ministry to assent to changing gender on their accounts. Behind the scenes, however, trans citizens’ files were programmed into the computer in a way that explicitly positioned them as aberrant due to the fact that the gender on their account records did not match their lived gender identities. A handwritten memo from the mid-1970s explained the reasoning behind this new hard line approach, noting that “it has been decided that National Insurance cards must bear the original name and title of the insured person” because “to issue a man with a card bearing a woman's name might encourage him to believe that the department accepts his ‘change of sex’ and thus believe himself to be entitled to benefits as a woman under national insurance.”"
The Ministry simultaneously felt changes on national IDs were no longer necessary given they would no longer be shown to employers, but at the same time so powerful they would award "aberrent" trans people legal recognition and power to attain the rights of their identified gender. Further, every entry of every known trans person was marked within the digital system which would trigger "compatibility check failures," which meant that each case was designed to be handled manually. Hicks calls this a "computerized process was designed to undercut the validity of that person's gender identity as a matter of procedure." Hicks labels this a prehistory of algorithmic bias, where a computerized system was intentionally designed to treat trans people as other and make processes that were actually once easier more difficult, despite increased flexibility in a digitized system.