Agency over ID

State’s Gender Recognition Act should spark a conversation about whether gender is a meaningful way of categorizing people at all

Sawyer Kemp is a PhD candidate studying queer theory at UC Davis. They are also a co-founder of Skip Theory, a theatre company for trans and gender-nonconforming performers.

I read Senate Bill 179 on nonbinary identity so you don’t have to—but it’s kind of a banger and you might want to give it a look. The “Gender Recognition Act,” which went into effect September 1, has some powerful language that redefines the state’s conception of gender, explicitly stating, “The binary designations of female and male fail to adequately represent the diversity of human experience.”

The bill is designed to streamline processes for trans, intersex and gender-nonconforming Californians to have their legal documents (such as birth certificates and driver’s licenses) reflect their identities. For the first time, this will include people who identify as nonbinary.

According to the 2015 Trans Survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, over one-third of the survey’s nearly 28,000 respondents identified as nonbinary, suggesting “the need for advocacy that is inclusive of all identities in the transgender community.” With this new legislation, California joins Oregon, Washington state and the District of Columbia as early adopters of nonbinary recognition.

As someone who identifies as nonbinary, but went through the legal name and gender change process once already to get my driver’s license changed from “F” to “M,” I felt both excited and anxious about the new law. When I filed my documents two years ago, it seemed to me an unending chain of cover letters, doctors’ notes and confusing legal forms. Although the state dropped the requirement to publish your gender change in the newspaper in 2015, until this month you needed to have a psychiatrist write a letter to your doctor, a doctor write a letter to the court, the court’s ruling and a second form for your doctor to sign for the DMV that—no joke—asks them to testify that your “demeanor” is satisfactorily male or female.

In addition to allowing applicants to select “Male,” “Female” or “Nonbinary,” SB 179 removes the need for physician approval for legal gender change. Instead, applicants must sign an affidavit attesting under penalty of perjury that the request reflects their true gender identity. Sacramento’s Gender Health Center—a nonprofit resource center that provides legal, medical and social services for trans people in the Central Valley region—said it will soon be hosting name change clinics in partnership with UC Davis law students to help applicants understand the new process.

According to the center’s advocacy program manager (who asked not to be identified by name), this is “an extremely important piece of legislation, in part because it takes physicians out of the process, allowing people to self-identify who they are” without medical gatekeeping.

In case this was sounding too easy, there are some growing pains. The federal government changed the passport information page on “Gender Designation Change” to read “Change of Sex Marker” on September 13, ostensibly in response to California’s new law. A physician’s approval is necessary for changes to passports, and some federal institutions may not accept nonbinary IDs as legal identification.

Overall, the state law is a groundbreaking development for trans and nonbinary Californians. Even as I feel validated by the institutional recognition, it’s a little hard to wrap your brain around declaring your gender under perjury of law. I’m looking at the form, and in good faith reckoning with the fact that it is a federal crime to get this wrong. And I think, not for the first time, that cis people don’t have to do any of this.

Cis people didn’t need a doctor to sign off on their “demeanor” before September 1, and they won’t need to defend their gender under perjury of law now. Ultimately, I’m checking this box for “nonbinary” because we all fail the gender binary in some way—or rather, the gender binary fails us. This bill signals a shift in our cultural understanding of gender, but I hope it is also the beginning of a conversation about whether gender is a meaningful way of categorizing people at all.