At the end of last year, the Merriam-Webster dictionary named non-binary singular pronoun ‘they’ the word of 2019.
Non-binary identities have taken centre stage over the past few years and more people have started to openly identify as non-binary. In the UK, non-binary people make up one per cent of the population – about 630,000 people – including prominent public figures such as Grammy awarded singer Sam Smith, as well as LGBTQ+ activists.
It is worth noting that non-binary or genderqueer people regard gender as a spectrum and do not feel represented by the traditional gender binary opposition of male and female. They also prefer to use neutral pronouns to refer to themselves, hence pronouns such as ‘they/them’ celebrated by the Merriam-Webster.
Is non-binary a ‘new’ gender identity?
Despite a widespread misconception, identities beyond the gender binary are not new. There is evidence of people identifying as something other than male or female as far back as 2,000 BCE in civilisations such as Mesopotamia, Sumer, and Ancient Egypt.
Moreover, several cultures and ethnic groups have concepts of gender-variant roles challenging the binary opposition, with a history of them going back to antiquity. For example, Hijra in the Indian subcontinent and Two-Spirit in the Indigenous North American culture.
Gender-neutral passports in the UK
However, it is only in recent years that non-binary activists have risen to prominence, asking to be recognised. Non-binary campaigners all over the world want to be able to express their own identity on passports as well. Many feel discriminated against when they are forced to identify as either male or female on official documents.
‘There is nothing more painful than the hurtful reminder of the world constantly perceiving you as the gender you do not identify with,’ says Charlie Mathers, a British bisexual activist who identifies as non-binary.
‘It’s a slap in the face and invalidates the gender that you are. Having a passport, and all official documents, that match my gender identity would be pure bliss. It’s validation on a whole other level,’ they continued.
The UK is the latest country to be discussing whether to allow non-binary people to choose a gender-neutral option. British non-binary activist Christie Elan-Cane has been campaigning for 25 years to achieve recognition for non-binary identities. Elan-Cane was also joined by non-binary activist Jamie Windust, who started an online petition to allow people to identify outside of ‘male’ and ‘female’ on legal documentation.
In June 2019, Elan-Cane was among those challenging the UK policy in the High Court, arguing that the current process of listing themselves as male or female on official documents was unlawful and ‘inherently discriminatory’. The court, however, rejected claims that the policy breaches the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
In December 2019, Elan-Cane appealed the High Court decision and appeared at the Court of Appeals. LGBT charity Stonewall is also at the forefront of the fight to help the non-binary community get legal recognition.
‘It’s vital that non-binary people are able to have their gender recognised on official documents, including passports. Currently, travelling abroad can present many challenges for non-binary people, and trans communities more widely, who can face intrusive questions and difficulties at passport control,’ says Kirrin Medcalf, Head of Trans Inclusion at Stonewall.
‘We are calling on the next Government to include an X category on forms and passports, so that non-binary people can have documents that reflect who they are.’
Introducing non-binary passports has become crucial for non-binary activism. According to Forbes, the UK government has deemed the cost of £2 million to introduce the gender-neutral passport extremely expensive. Elan-Cane, as well as other non-gendered activists, highlighted that other countries that have implemented the ‘x option’ have done so in a relatively hassle-free manner.
Which countries have introduced a gender-neutral option on passports?
If the case goes Elan-Cane’s way, it will be a historic ruling for the non-binary community. The UK would join those countries who already allow for non-binary and intersex people to self-identify on official documents.
As of 2020, Iceland is the latest country to have implemented the ‘x option’ on documents. Several countries already have some form of legal recognition of identities beyond the binary.
In Argentina, two non-binary people were the first to receive IDs and birth certificates with no indication of gender in November 2018.
Austrian intersex activist Alex Jürgen was the first to be granted a birth certificate and passport with a non-binary gender entry.
Ever since 2003, Australia has allowed non-binary people to choose the ‘x option’ on official documents. New Zealand introduced the ‘x’ marker in 2012.
Canada introduced a non-binary option on passports and other documents in 2017. Denmark started allowing gender non-conforming people to self-identify on travel documents in 2014.
Germany is the first European country to recognise non-binary identities by getting rid of the gender marker on birth certificates. It later introduced a ‘diverse’ marker to indicate gender.
The Netherlands also allows its citizens to choose the ‘x option’ on their passport.
Both India and Pakistan have three options for official documents.
Some US states, such as California and Oregon, and Washington D.C. issue gender-neutral birth certificates and driving licences.
What would a British gender-neutral passport look like?
The new British passport would allow non-binary, gender fluid, gender non-conforming and intersex people to choose the ‘x option’ with no other changes to the appearances or functionalities of the document.
Moreover, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialised agency of the United Nations managing the administration and governance of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, has already implemented a third option indicating sex is unspecified. Therefore, passport reading machines in airports would already be compatible with the new passports.
Several airlines, such as British Airways as well as the five major American carriers – American, Delta, United, Southwest and Alaska – have also already introduced or announced the implementation of a non-binary option for passengers (“Mx”) to choose during the booking process.
‘The impact of a non-binary passport would go far beyond being able to pass through airport security without being made to feel insignificant,’ continued Mathers.
‘It means that the government who put policies that affect my life in place recognise my existence. It would mean that it’d be easier for them to put laws in place that specifically protect non-binary people from discrimination and mistreatment.’