Why Canada Should Make IDs Gender Neutral — and America Should, Too

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Photo: Ian Willms

At the Toronto Pride parade on Sunday, the liberal dream-crush prime minister of Canada Justin Trudeau said in a TV interview that his government is currently working on the “best way” to put gender-neutral options on ID cards. Gender-neutral IDs are “part of the great arc of history sweeping towards justice,” Trudeau said, borrowing a line from Martin Luther King, Jr. — who was in turn riffing on a favorite saying from a Unitarian abolitionist preacher — and thus beautifully tying gender progress to racial progress.

There’s already momentum in Canada: Starting in January 2017, driver’s licenses and health cards in Ontario will come with an X option in addition to the standard M and F. A handful of countries have already made gender neutrality a formal category, including Australia and Germany in 2014. In the U.S., Oregon has allowed a person to declare as neither gender, and New York’s IDNYC offers a “not designated” gender option.

Paisley Currah, a political scientist and gender-identity expert at Brooklyn College, tells Science of Us that if Canada adds a gender-neutral option, it would be most beneficial for people who don’t identify with the gender binary. A trans person, for instance, may wish to have an M or F on their driver’s license as a recognition of the gender they identify as, so it would be problematic to make that person take a third option. The X, Currah says, should be for people who don’t identify with either gender already available as an option.

There’s a “ lack of recognition” if your driver’s license doesn’t fit with your identity, Currah says. So much of navigating life’s many hoops requires presenting identification, whether it’s interacting with a police officer, getting past a bouncer at a bar, or dealing with a clerk at an administrative office. When you buy a plane ticket, you have to state your gender, and if you might not look like what’s on the paper, airport security can create problems for you. And while governments used to need to know people’s gender to determine who could serve in the military or get married, that’s finally become antiquated.

The change would also send a message, providing loads more exposure and a formal recognition for nonbinary people across Canada — which could help “normalize gender nonbinary identity,” Currah says. This has the potential to help lots of people: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has found that LBGTQ youth are over twice as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, so, as one activist told the New York Times last year, validating people’s identity and experiences could save their lives.

So could it happen in the United States? Currah says that it wouldn’t come from Washington; it would start with states and municipalities. It’s already happening on college campuses. “Over time, it will change,” he says, noting that right now, conservatives in the U.S. are have an anxious moment about gender — see North Carolina’s bathroom battle. “But that moment won’t stay with us forever.”