Brand New People

Around five years from now, a method is invented which allows saves the life of several infants who would have otherwise died during birth. However, they are born comatose. Doctors hope they will spontaneously awaken, but they do not. They are alive but unresponsive and unthinking for years. Their bodies mature and occasionally a researcher has a futile idea for how to wake them up. Years pass, until finally, 23 years on, a junior doctor has an idea that she gets permission to try on a patient.

This patient, in a coma from just before birth, 23 years ago, awakens. Eyes flutter open for the first time. A long-delayed wail reverberates down the care home corridor. Some newspapers offer the headline ‘Woman Awake After Spending her Entire Life in a Coma’. But is this right? Letters to the editor raise the question, ‘Is this patient, assigned female at birth, who menstruates, but has never participated in culture or had a sense of themselves until this morning: are they a woman?’

The doctor, eager to see if her cure works on others, awakens two additional patients: one assigned male at birth; one assigned female, but discovered years ago to have been born without a uterus. A local newspaper says, ‘Flush with success, Doctor X Awakens a Man and a Woman.’ Again, a debate debate on Comnet carries on: Are 23-year-olds who have been unconscious their whole life, who have never menstruated or had an erection – are they men and women?

Meanwhile, thanks to the therapy techniques developed over the next 30 years, the first patient is successfully learning to communicate and can now indicate words for generalised items, such as ‘food’ and for roles, such as ‘doctor’, ‘nurse’ and ‘therapist.’ The patient learns signs for ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and, after seemingly grasping the concept, constantly refers to themselves as a ‘man.’ The communication therapists first attribute this to the fumbles of a new learner, but the patient has a high degree of accuracy applying this to others. When the therapist tries to correct the patient, they shake their head in vigorous disagreement. ‘Man!’ they indicate, with increased forcefulness. ‘Man!’

Appeals to genitals do not sway the patient’s assertions. The medical staff at the care facility have a meeting to discuss this.

‘She can’t possibly know she’s transgender’, a few say, ‘she doesn’t have the life experience.’

Others argue, ‘We allow patient B to say he’s a man, without life experience. We allow patient C to say she’s a woman. They have even less experience than A does, who’s been awake six months longer.’

Feminist texts are consulted. Someone leaks a broad outline of the meeting to the national press. A scandal emerges. But all the while, Dr. X’s new method gradually awakens patients around the world, all 21-23 years old, but brand new people.