Validation, not victory, for non-binary Californians

San Francisco City Hall lit up in the colors of the Transgender Pride Flag, November 2015. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

On October 15, 2017, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill No. 179, enacting the Gender Recognition Act. This law creates a third, non-binary gender option on driver’s licenses, state ID cards, and birth certificates, and also — very importantly — streamlines the process for changing gender markers. Oregon and Washington, D.C. both created non-binary options for ID cards earlier this year, and a number of jurisdictions in other countries have recognized non-binary gender to various degrees for months or years, so this is a welcome development.

Though the non-binary option is what’s making the headlines, I want to emphasize the importance of streamlining the process for legal changes of gender, which is often a difficult, expensive, and invasive process for trans people. Beginning September 1, 2018, California residents will no longer be required to undergo any kind of treatment in order to have a gender change legally recognized. Removing medical gatekeepers from blocking the path to gender authenticity is essential, especially for low-income people. While most trans people experience dysphoria — a discomfort with the sex we were assigned at birth — being trans or non-binary is not itself a mental illness, and no one should be forced to seek psychiatric help or subject themselves to unwanted hormonal or surgical interventions in order to have their genders legally or socially recognized. The option to change gender on identification cards to non-binary will be available beginning January 1, 2019.

People under the age of 18 will also be able to petition for a legal gender change, even without parental consent. This is important because many parents, even if they are well-meaning, do not understand or respect their trans children’s identities. Despite what some religious conservatives and TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) claim, this is not about foisting irreversible medical treatments on helpless, impressionable young people. This is simply honoring and respecting their authentic selves. In a country where over half of trans youth have considered suicide, and a third have attempted it, trans kids need all of the support they can get.

While this legal validation of non-binary identities is important, we have a long way to go toward true societal acceptance of the fact that genders other than female and male exist. (Female and male are actually sexes, not genders, but the law often conflates the two. Regardless, sex is not binary, either.) Even here in supposedly liberal San Francisco, I’ve encountered resistance to simple things like using “singular they” pronouns, which many (but not all) non-binary people request. It isn’t enough to merely have a piece of paper or plastic saying that someone is non-binary if they’re still frequently misgendered or mocked by the public.

Largely because of the constant (even if unintentional) misgendering by strangers, I am uncertain whether I want to go through another legal change of gender. In 2014 I began testosterone therapy and had a court hearing to change my name and change my gender from female to male, as significant dysphoria with my female-assigned reproductive system made being read as male the better of the only two widely recognized options. But despite being legally recognized as male, I am agender, prefer “singular they” pronouns, and dislike gendered titles and salutations like “Mr.” and “Sir”. I can’t expect strangers to know this, but having an ID card with an “X” on it won’t make any difference in the overwhelming majority of social situations. This is why we need more education and awareness that people like myself exist and are valid.

As we have nearly a year before this law goes into effect, we should use the time to educate more people on current and respectful transgender terminology, and best practices for being inclusive and welcoming of people with non-binary identities. While acts of allyship are often helpful and appreciated, trans education is best led by transgender, not cisgender, people. Cis allies should amplify the voices of trans people by sharing our stories, asking what we need, hiring us and compensating us for our time, and deferring to us in discussions regarding gender identity and the needs of trans and non-binary communities.

Here are a few trans and non-binary folks whose work I respect and recommend:

I have also blogged extensively about trans and non-binary issues, have given presentations and spoken on panels about the subject, and most recently conducted a staff training on gender diversity at a local vegan restaurant, Sanctuary Bistro. The feedback has been largely positive thus far, and I might be encouraged to give more formal talks if there is a demand for it.

The author gives a presentation on transgender issues at the Wikimedia Foundation, June 2017.
Instagram screenshot showing the author giving a gender diversity training. Photo by Jennifer Jones Horton.

Let’s go beyond legal documentation and work to make all places — not just California—truly inclusive and welcoming for people with non-binary gender identities.