California Becomes The First State To Recognize A Third Gender

On October 15th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing people to identify as nonbinary (neither male or female) on driver licenses and birth certificates. In signing Bill SB179, Brown made California the first state to formally recognize nonbinary people.

The “California Gender Recognition Act” describes nonbinary as an “umbrella term for people with gender identities that fall somewhere outside of the traditional conceptions of strictly either female or male.” Many nonbinary people go by gender-neutral pronouns like “they” or “them,” and some use gender-neutral honorifics like Mx, included in the Oxford Dictionary in 2015.

The bill was initially proposed by the Transgender Law Center, an organization aimed at guaranteeing legal rights for trans people and co-authored by Senators Toni Atkins and Scott Wiener. It has three distinct provisions, all of them aimed at the legal recognition of transgender people. While the bill allows people to identify as nonbinary on state documents, it also removes the previous requirement for trans people to get a doctor’s statement and appear in court to change their legal gender, and also gives minors a process to apply for gender changes on their birth certificates.

Senator Atkins expected the bill to generate controversy but, during the nine months it was tabled, there was little political resistance. The main public opposition was the conservative California Family Council, which argued that the bill did not reflect “biological facts,” and urged Californians to “think of their children.” Nevertheless, the bill’s passage wasn’t certain, as nobody knew where Governor Brown stood on the issue until five minutes before the midnight deadline.

Advocates for LGBT people were thrilled with his decision. Senator Atkins thanked Brown “for recognizing how difficult it can be for our transgender, nonbinary and intersex family members, friends and neighbours when they don’t have an ID that matches their gender presentation,” and  Sara Kelly Keenan, the first Californian to be legally recognized as nonbinary, called it an “important moment in history.”

For many Californians, the bill’s passage is a matter of safety. Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, said that inappropriate ID “can expose [people] to potentially dangerous situations” and lauded the government for “eliminat[ing] obstacles from the process of getting state-issued identification documents for thousands of Californians.”

California’s decision isn’t unusual; Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, India, Pakistan and parts of Canada already have some kind of legal recognition of nonbinary people. But it’s the first official recognition in the United States, and many hope that it will become a model for other states to follow. Jody L. Herman of the Williams Institute Scholar of Public Policy said, “As … our concepts of gender continue to expand, governments are going to have to grapple with it and figure out how to be responsive to the way people understand themselves and live their lives.”

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