US to add third gender option to passports

X-Factor: Great news for intersex people, such as the four above.

Should we remove gender from passports? US passports have two gender options: M or F. Last week it was announced a third will be added: X. But the Dutch have dropped the question altogether.

In 2013, Dana Zzyym had to travel to Mexico for work. Their passport application was declined when they failed to say whether they were male or female. Zzyym is intersex, uses they/them pronouns and campaigns for a third gender to be recognised on official documents.

That fight is almost over. The US has announced that citizens can now self-select their preferred gender identity without additional proof. For now, the choice is still binary, between M (male) and F (female). But soon, there will be an X option for “non-binary, intersex, and gender non-conforming persons”.

It’s a huge victory for the estimated 1.2 million Americans who identify as non-binary. Zzyym says: “We can just be ourselves” and “don’t have to lie to get our passports”.

The move puts the US in a small but growing group of countries offering more gender options. In 2003, the Australian Alex McFarlane became the first person in the world to acquire a gender-neutral passport. India, Malta, New Zealand and Argentina, among others, now offer a non-binary choice.

Social attitudes and the law are changing. In many countries, intersex and non-binary people still face forced sterilisation, gender reassignment surgery and psychiatric evaluation before they are allowed to change gender. But in at least ten countries, people can correct their documents without medical intervention.

This change overturns centuries of accepted ideas about sex and gender. Since the Age of Enlightenment, Western science and society have assumed that people are either male or female. And that gender identity is determined by biological sex. Men are masculine and women are feminine.

As many as 1.7% of people are born intersex, with sex characteristics that “do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies”. Others experience gender dysphoria due to a mismatch between their gender identity and biological sex. The experiences of intersex and transgender people have challenged the idea that sex and gender are fixed and binary.

But many cultures already recognise three or more genders. In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that hijras should have a third gender option in their passports.

For intersex Americans like Mary Emily O’Hara, these changes mean they can carry IDs that match their “authentic self” as well as avoiding embarrassing questions about why their documents “don’t say the same thing.”

However, the Netherlands has a different solution. They plan to remove gender markers from their documents, following UN advice that there are “significant doubts” of the usefulness of this information.

Supporters argue that including race and religion leads to discrimination and the persecution of minorities. The same applies to gender. Their purpose is to prove that people are who they say they are. According to Dutch officials, making people declare their gender is not helpful and could be harmful.

So, should we remove gender from passports?

X marks the spot

Some say yes, it is an unnecessary piece of information. We do not need to declare our sexuality, religion or political persuasion in order to work or travel, so why do we need to fix our gender on paper? The law should be blind and treat everyone equally. We should embrace a world free from categories, where identity is so fluid and diverse that even three options would not be enough.

Others say no, it would deny people the right to legally exist. Official documents and medical science have made intersex and non-binary people invisible for generations. They live in a society built on binaries and categories that exclude them. Removing gender from passports will not change this, but including their identity will give non-binary people a powerful weapon to fight for equal rights.

You Decide

  1. Has anyone ever made a wrong assumption about who you are? How did it make you feel?
  2. Why do you think gender is included on passports?

Activities

  1. In small groups, design a passport for your school. What details will you include and when will you need to show it?
  2. In small groups, list the ways your school is divided into male and female. Suggest ways of making school more inclusive to intersex and non-binary students.

Some People Say...

“Gender is not something that one is, it is something one does, an act… a doing rather than a being.”

Judith Butler, (1956 – ), American philosopher and gender theorist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that determining sex is not as straightforward as it may appear. This is because biological sex is a combination of associated characteristics. Most people with XY chromosomes also have male genitals and male sex hormones, but not everyone fits so easily into the male or female category. Atypical or ambiguous genitalia may be normalised with surgery at birth, but other traits can emerge in puberty.
What do we not know?
One area of debate is the relationship between sex and gender. Some argue we are born male, female or intersex and we are raised by society to be men, women, non-binary or transgender. Sex is nature and gender is nurture. Others say it is more complex. Our bodies and biological sex affect how others treat us and how well we can fit into our social roles. And in turn, our gender affects how we exercise, use and modify our bodies.

Word Watch

Intersex
Historically, people with an ambiguous gender were known as hermaphrodites.
Binary
Binaries divide something into two mutually exclusive parts that are defined by each other.
Malta
In 2014, Malta became the first country to outlaw medically normalising the anatomy of intersex people without their consent.
Forced sterilisation
Removing someone’s reproductive organs to assign a gender normally causes infertility.
Age of Enlightenment
In the 17th and 18th Centuries, classified nature and society into systems of race, class and sex.
Sex characteristics
These include variations in chromosomes, gonads (testicles and ovaries), hormones and genitals.
Gender dysphoria
Dysphoria is a general sense of unease and is the opposite of euphoria. Some transgender people argue it misrepresents their experience as an illness.
Many cultures
Some Native American cultures have a third gender.
Hijras
Across South Asia, hijras are legally recognised as a third gender and are neither male nor female.
Race and religion
Critics argue that the official classification of Jews in Europe and Tutsis in Rwanda created the conditions for genocide.

Subjects

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