One Little Box: Reforming the District’s Approach to Gender Identity

“Students No Longer Have to Choose Between Male and Female.”

The new form.

Progress walks funny. Often, it comes from unexpected corners, unannounced, in the endless chain of small victories that precede and follow every major one.

This particular small victory came with a cake. However, that was just a coincidence.

The cake marked the closing ceremony of Form-a-Palooza, a District initiative to bring together municipal employees and concerned residents in order to redesign unwieldy government forms. City officials on their lunch break milled around, and between bites of vanilla sheet cake they excitedly discussed the four-foot tall paperwork plastered to the walls. One DCRA official had helped design a revamped application for his agency; he jumped back and forth between blow-ups of the new form’s different pages as he answered an engaged young woman’s questions about color schemes.

His was not the only form that had changed. Anyone who looked closely at the brand new DC Public Schools enrollment form would notice an edit that may significantly impact the lives of some children in the District of Columbia. Once the new paperwork is rolled out for the 2019 school year, students answering the form’s “Gender” question will no longer have to choose between “Male” and “Female.”

Now there will be a third checkbox: “Non-Binary.”

The headers of the old DCPS form (above) and the new form (below).

This could impact students in several ways. Above all, says Shayne Wells of DCPS, school officials hope that the new form will finally affirm the gender identities of non-binary students when they enroll, rather than exclude them.

But it could also make students feel more included in the classroom. When teachers receive a list of the students in their class at the beginning of each school year, this list includes the gender that each student entered on their enrollment form. Students who identify as non-binary will no longer need to go through the effort of having a discussion with each of their teachers every year in order to avoid being misgendered by default.

This also means that each teacher will now have a more accurate understanding of the gender demographics of their classroom, and everyone will more accurately know the overall demographics of each school. Wells says that teachers and school administrators are striving right now to better support trans and gender-nonconforming students, and he thinks this information can help them make sure that they have proper supports in place.

Indeed, as Wells alluded to, there has been a broad push in the past couple of years by the DC Public Schools and the District government to better serve transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) residents. While discrimination on the basis of gender identity has been illegal in the District of Columbia for over a decade, it is still, of course, not a given that the government always lives up to the letter and spirit of that law.

Working to improve this, in April 2017 Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration asked all DC agencies to examine their own policies and work to improve their protections for TGNC rights. There have been some efforts to facilitate this process from the top down. For instance, the DC Office of Human Rights circulated a policy template to all the other agencies so that they could use this as guidance when shaping their own internal policies. Some agencies quickly adopted the template verbatim, making it serve as their own policy about gender identity.

Generally, however, District efforts to treat trans and non-binary residents more fairly and with more dignity have proceeded in a decentralized manner. Different agencies and subagencies have worked at different paces to move towards the Bowser administration’s proclaimed goals.

Sometimes, this can lead to inconsistencies. Let’s look at a few government forms. The DMV decided in 2016 that it would stop requiring residents to choose between ‘male’ and ‘female’ on their driver’s licenses, and Bowser personally announced the DMV change when it into effect last year. Meanwhile, although the school enrollment form is fixed for the 2019–2020 school year, other District forms — such as death certificates and applications for medical assistance — still only allow ‘male’ and ‘female’ as possible genders.

Of course, inconsistent progress is far better than consistent stagnation. But what does the process for improving DC’s treatment of trans and gender non-conforming people look like in practice? The serpentine story behind the new DCPS enrollment form can tell us a lot about who has the opportunity to institute change in DC government right now, as well as about the possible flaws in the Bowser administration’s approach to protecting TGNC rights and improving the lives of TGNC residents in DC.

As District agencies go, the school system has been among the most proactive in working to ensure its staff properly handle issues of gender identity. So why did the enrollment form not change until now?

Bringing all of the government’s systems in line with its professed values is an enormous task. Once officials decide that change is needed, these reforms percolate through agencies gradually. As prominent TGNC advocate (and the recipient of DC’s first gender-neutral driver’s license) Shige Sakurai told me, it “will continue to take time and good folks noticing things like [the exclusionary enrollment form] and making corrections.”

The Form-a-Palooza closing ceremony. Photo by Victoria Bishop.

Indeed, if Form-a-Palooza had not created an opportunity for “good folks” to see the problem and make corrections, when would this change have occurred? It is probably impossible to say. Shayne Wells says that DCPS took this as a “great opportunity” to simultaneously streamline an unwieldy form and further their efforts to make schools more inclusive and safe for LGBTQ students.

The roundabout way through which the form was fixed is worth paying attention to. The Bowser administration’s efforts to have the city treat transgender and gender non-conforming residents with more dignity have relied on this sort of decentralized process.

The important work of the Administration, DCPS, and The Lab made this change possible. They did not make it inevitable.

While they were ultimately supported all the way to the top of District government, city officials and residents who showed up that day at Form-a-Palooza took the initiative to make a necessary fix to school enrollment. This happy coincidence highlights the crucial role that bureaucrats’ attentiveness can play in making reform real. But at the same time, that quasi-happenstance illustrates what some have pointed to as serious shortcomings in the Bowser administration’s decentralized approach to reform.

The first Form-a-Palooza was a year ago, the inaugural effort of the newly formed Lab @ DC. Bowser created The Lab as a centralized innovation team within her administration that could provide technical expertise to all of DC’s agencies.

The Lab’s Karissa Minich, who helped come up with the Form-a-Palooza concept, says the event stemmed from broader efforts to improve the government’s “customer service.” By untangling some of the municipal bureaucracy’s unseemly knots, Lab officials hoped they could increase trust in District institutions and even increase the number of residents that end up applying for services that they need.

By all accounts, the first Form-a-Palooza was a success. Over the winter, The Lab asked residents to submit their ideas for forms to include in round two of the Palooza. They received more than sixty suggestions, but the byzantine DCPS enrollment form came up repeatedly.

The form, which tens of thousands of people have to fill out each year, was long and redundant: for instance, people were asked to enter the students’ first and last name six separate times. So The Lab included it in the final six for Form-a-Palooza 2018.

The new enrollment form, blown-up at Form-a-Palooza. Photo by Victoria Bishop.

Over the summer, teams of city officials and concerned residents came together for a day to work on everything from the handicapped parking pass application to food truck health certificate forms to the application for child care subsidies for low-income residents. Each team’s task was to audit the existing form and come up with a rough draft for a new one.

This is who changed the gender question — a motley crew of passionate nerds tasked with streamlining the DCPS form.

One of the many changes they made in their rough draft that day was to eliminate the checkboxes so that students could identify as any gender when they enroll. Over the next few months, The Lab worked with DCPS officials and other residents to move through about a dozen iterations of the new form. While they eventually returned to gender checkboxes to make it easier to enter the information into student databases, Minich says that there was enthusiasm from all fronts about abandoning the male-female binary in school enrollment. After a summer of careful revisions, the new form is now official.

If this change improves any students’ lives this year, it will not be the result of a centralized audit of gender identity policies across the city. Mayor Bowser declared intentions, and now reform will continue to percolate throughout District government as attentive officials find or create opportunities to bring the vision to life.

“There should be a mayoral order enforcing a consistent government-wide policy.”

However, some activists are critical of the current process. I talked about the process with current Gay and Lesbian Activists’ Alliance (GLAA) President Bobbi Strang and former President Rick Rosendall. Strang argued that centralized, collaborative reform would be a better way to “ensure consistent respectful treatment of diverse gender identities and expressions across all government agencies in the District of Columbia.” As an alternative to decentralization, Rosendall thinks that “there should be a mayoral order enforcing a consistent government-wide policy, rather than letting a hundred flowers blossom.”

Indeed, other activists have been fighting for just such an alternative. Organizers with No Justice No Pride have been critical of Bowser for what they describe as failures to “fulfill her campaign promises” to serve the District’s trans, gender non-conforming, and queer communities. They’ve advanced a platform that broadly would push reforms onto agencies — especially where these reforms would be most contentious — and methods to systematically decide which changes are most urgent.

NJNP also wants Bowser’s administration to create a transparent cross-agency strategy to address problems like harassment of trans and queer youths at schools and elsewhere, and to address violence against TGNC and queer people in the District (including violence perpetrated by MPD police officers). They also request that the city audit the compliance of all District agencies and agency staff, and create a central “TGNC Community Taskforce” of TGNC community leaders and experts of color. The Taskforce would then help advise and orchestrate the District’s various initiatives and policies that support TGNC communities.

Whether or not any of these demands will be met remains to be seen. But in the current system, the efforts of concerned and energized city officials to bring reform to their own domains are crucial. The District still has a massive task ahead of itself: it will involve many small changes like fixing the school enrollment form, as well as many larger ones.

Each of these changes can matter dearly. Advocate Shige Sakurai tells me that while the way gender identity is marked on paper is not the most important policy issue facing TGNC people in the District, they hope that the DCPS change will empower some young nonbinary people and that it “will remind them that they should expect to be treated as full residents of the District of Columbia, not erased or made marginal.”