Carrying Our Genders In Our Wallets

My non-binary identity cannot be reduced to a single letter on a piece of plastic.

Pax Ahimsa Gethen
Nov 14 · 4 min read

Recently, the California Department of Motor Vehicles sent me a notice that my state ID card was up for renewal. I was eligible to renew online, but if I wanted to upgrade to a Real ID, I had to visit a DMV office in person. I stalled on making the decision. I knew that a Real ID or passport would soon be required for boarding airplanes in the U.S., but I am not a frequent flyer, and am aware of the security and privacy concerns expressed by many about this new form of identification.

Ultimately, I decided to upgrade, and just in time too, as there was a backlog of more than two months for DMV appointments in the San Francisco Bay Area. I began filling out the online application offered to streamline the process. On the “Basics” page, I stopped at a question that most people would answer without thought or hesitation: “What is your sex?”

Screenshot from the California DMV identification card application. The text reads “What is your sex?” with the options of “Female”, “Male”, and “Nonbinary”, and explanatory text about changing gender categories.

Five years ago, I changed my legally-recognized sex from female to male, and changed all of my identification cards accordingly. However, my gender is actually non-binary; I identify as an agender trans male, not a man. The distinction might seem confusing or subtle — or even downright ridiculous to many — but it is important to me. (Note that “sex” and “gender” are used interchangeably in the above DMV screenshot — as well as in many other places — which doesn’t help matters.)

I am glad that California now offers the option to select a category of female, male, or non-binary on driver’s licenses and state IDs, without requiring a court order, doctor’s note, or any further documentation than a self-certification on the appropriate DMV form. However, I have been reluctant to change my own ID again for a number of reasons.

For one thing, changing the marker on my state ID card would put that official document out of sync with how I am categorized by the federal government. I am currently listed as male with the Social Security Administration and on my U.S. passport, and I have no option to change to non-binary for either of these. The United States is behind a number of other countries in this regard; Australia, Canada, and New Zealand all allow non-binary designations on passports, and several other countries offer various non-binary identification options for intersex and third gender residents.

For another, I’m a little suspicious of the number and distribution of U.S. states offering a non-binary option, considering the current political climate and the lack of federal recognition for non-binary gender. Just today — November 13, 2019 — the state of Massachusetts began allowing non-binary gender designations on driver’s licenses, bringing to 14 the number of states (plus Washington D.C.) offering this option. But this list of states also includes Arkansas, Indiana, and Utah, which are not particularly supportive of trans people or the LGBT community in general.

What motivations and incentives do relatively conservative states have to offer an “X” marker to their non-binary residents? Some fear that government officials are collecting this demographic information so they can round us up in internment camps (or worse) in the future. I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, but considering the anti-LGBT backlash the Trump administration has encouraged, I don’t think these fears are really that far-fetched.

But the main reason I’ve decided to stay with the “M” marker is that, to me, is really all it is; a single letter on a piece of plastic I carry in my wallet. Hardly anyone ever sees my ID; I can’t remember the last time I needed to produce it. I don’t drive, but even if I did and were pulled over by a police officer, I really doubt I would be gendered correctly regardless of the designation on my license. Having an “X” in my pocket will not prevent people from viewing and interacting with me as if I were a man, just as having an “M” marker before testosterone therapy masculinized my appearance did not prevent people from misgendering me as a woman.

So if all it is is ink on plastic, why did I bother changing my marker in the first place? I did so because of the significant dysphoria I experience with my female-assigned reproductive system, and the associated distress with being viewed and categorized as female and addressed as a woman; my subconscious sex is male. In a society that conflates sex with gender and still barely comprehends the existence of binary trans people, much less non-binary folks, I can live with being an “M”; even though that designation is inaccurate and incomplete, it’s far preferable to “F” for me.

For some other non-binary people, on the other hand, being labeled with one of two binary sexes is flat-out unacceptable. For them, I am glad that more non-binary options are now available, and hope the trend will continue. If nothing else, news about these options will help increase awareness of our existence.

With increased awareness and visibility of trans and non-binary people has come increased violence, unfortunately, especially for trans people of color. During this Transgender Awareness Week, allies can help by reading and sharing our stories, and respecting our names, pronouns, and titles. We are not M, F, and X; we are millions of human individuals with varied histories — often painful, frequently fascinating, and always authentic.

Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Written by

Queer agender trans male. Black vegan atheist, photographer, blogger. Pronouns: they/them/their.,

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