Do We Really Need Gender Markers on IDs?

New York City is the latest to join the gender-neutral ID parade: Transgender residents will find it easier to change the gender marker on their birth certificates, and officials have added an “X” option for people who aren’t male or female. With trans rights under threat, this slowly growing trend feels like a good sign — but maybe it’s time to interrupt the parade for a minute.

Why do we have gender markers on ID at all?

Before we delve into the history of gendered identification documents — a topic Samantha Allen at the Daily Beast covered in great depth – it’s important to acknowledge that these policy changes are big victories. Transgender people with identification that doesn’t reflect their actual gender can experience emotional distress, as well as physical danger. Imagine going through the TSA line holding a driver’s license with a gender marker that doesn’t match how you look; I can tell you from personal experience that it really sucks!

But government policies have made it extremely difficult to change gender markers in an efficient way, which is pretty nonsensical. If identification is supposed to help authorities accurately identify a person, surely it should have a recent photo and current vital statistics — including gender. You’d think officials would want to make it easier to update this information, and to do so across all of their identifications.

Currently, the laws on updating name and gender on identification are incredibly variable. Some trans people have birth certificates, driver’s licenses, passports and other identity documents that don’t actually agree with each other; a birth certificate declaring someone male, for example, while her passport says she is female.

Just one-fifth of those surveyed by the National Center for Transgender Equality had been able to update all their identification documents; some are stymied by cost and bureaucratic red tape, while others are barred by law.

Any progress towards allowing people to update their identification is good progress — especially when it includes recognition for intersex, non-binary and otherwise gender nonconforming people.

But that brings us back to the original question: Why have gender on identification at all? Why does it matter? When is it relevant? Does passport control really need to know that you’re a man? Should a police officer know that you’re non-binary?

According to Allen, passports didn’t even have a gender marker until 1977, after the International Civil Aviation Organization made it part of their recommendations for new passport standards. The change may have been triggered by the fabulous androgynous fashion of the era, with travelers dressing and grooming themselves in ways that weren’t always obviously gendered. You couldn’t tell someone’s gender from a photo, or sometimes even in person.

Gender is often treated, as it is here, as a vital statistic that’s necessary to correctly identify a person — or, in the case of birth certificates, as a way to collect data about assigned sex in a very streamlined and nearly universal way. Without gender markers, the logic seems to go, people might be mistaken for others or officials might not know which gender-segregated facilities to direct someone to — whether we’re talking a customs officer pointing out the bathroom or a police officer putting someone in holding.

As long as facilities remain gender-segregated, that’s going to continue to be an issue — but not one solvable with gender markers on identifications. Incarcerated trans women, for example, are routinely housed with men, despite the fact that they should be in women’s facilities. A better approach to these situations might simply be to ask which someone feels is most appropriate for their needs. In the long term, degendering public facilities would reduce a lot of stress for everyone – except for transphobes.

The expectation that everyone has a gender and that it should be readily discernible is rooted in very long cultural tradition. Challenges to this notion tend to feel pretty threatening, but they’re conversations worth having.

How many times has someone’s gender actually mattered to you in a material way, beyond wanting to know which pronouns to use in reference to them? Have you ever felt uncomfortable or awkward around someone with an ambiguous gender?

Maybe this is a good time to start leaning in to that feeling and push yourself to get out of the habit of automatically sorting people by gender upon first introduction.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Dorrough/Unsplash

53 comments

Olivia M
Olivia M29 days ago

thanks for sharing

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Hannah K
Hannah Kabout a month ago

thanks for sharing

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Dave fleming
Past Member about a month ago

NO.

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Leo C
Leo C1 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Janis K
Janis K1 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Mia B
Mia B1 months ago

Thanks

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Leo C
Leo C1 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Don Z
Don Z1 months ago

There are two genders, male and female. They are assigned while the fetus is developing in the womb. Anyone who is confused by or unable to accept that is mentally ill.

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Alanna R
Alanna R1 months ago

Short answer: No.

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Amanda M
Amanda M1 months ago

And this comes on top of the news that Twitler's minions want to "erase" protections for LGBTQ people as well as those who are born hermaphroditic or intersex by defining gender as being what you are assigned at birth due to the genitalia you present rather than your true identity of what is INSIDE. And Jenn C, China's problem is due to the societal preference for sons LEADING to sex-selective abortions rather than just their one-child policy! If both males and females were equally valued, then the one-child policy would have been a non-issue. Furthermore, LGBT people are not "deluded"-they are BORN the way they are, and transgender people in particular are literally born in the wrong body because their identity went one way and their gender manifestation went the other during fetal development. Once they are able to transition, the outside matches the inside and they are ABLE to be happy in their own skin. Forcing them to be the "wrong" gender just perpetuates their misery and leads to MORE psychological issues. Read the science and stop denying the FACTS!

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