Some good and possibly quite unexpected news may be on its way for the UK’s intersex minority, as officials from the Passport Service revealed that, following recent events in Australia, they too are actively considering changes to how gender is recorded on the UK passport.
Shock! Horror! Home Office answers question!
That was the somewhat unexpected result to ping back from a phone call to the Home Office on Friday. I was working on a piece for the Guardian on the Australian Government’s decision to recognise intersex individuals by inserting an “x” against the box marked “sex” on their passport. Out of curiosity, and expecting the usual non-committal answer, I rang the Home Office to inquire when we were planning to do similar. (Something which, i suspect, i was alone out of UK journalists in doing).
To my amazement, they rang back a little later to state that the “IPS is considering the gender options available to customers in the British passport. We are exploring with international partners and relevant stakeholders the security implications of gender not being displayed in the passport.”
That is decidedly interesting, given that the usual government response to a direct question is either to say nothing – or to answer a quite different question altogether.
Does that, however, mean that they are planning to recognise intersex – or is something else afoot? I wonder, because it is just possible the UK Gov is approaching this from a different angle – and that the Australian Gov may end up ruffling not a few feathers by the action it has taken this week.
The legal backdrop
Let’s start with the legal position. One expert on these matters tells me that there is no international legal requirement to include sex on passports. That’s possibly the case – but doesn’t quite square with the fact that the UK is signed up to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards – document 9303, should you care about such things – and unless it conforms to those standards, which include a mandatory sex field, it cannot issue machine-readable passports.
So sex/gender is going to be there for a while yet.
What about the options on offer? The ICAO suggests that signatories can use F for female, M for male, and X for unspecified. I think I shall ask them what they mean by that. However, to me, that sounds very much as though they are allowing the X option to be inserted where it is impossible to provide one of the other two.
Not, as the Aussie passport office guidelines now state: “indeterminate/ unspecified/ intersex”.
The difficulty, of course, lies in that fuzzy word “unspecified”: does it mean that gender is defined as “unspecified” (that is, a category that is neither of the other two); or does it just mean that gender hasn’t been specified, as in, it hasn’t been filled in?
Personally, I suspect the latter: I very much doubt that a body as establishment as the ICAO deliberately paved the way for an intersex option to be added to a passport. That means that sooner or later the Australian Gov might be in hot water over this move, since their guidelines also make it clear that “x” is only to be available to individuals certified as intersex by a recognized medical professional.
No room there for gender benders or feminists who object to their gender being recorded to opt for the “x”!
The scope of the debate
Which brings us back to the UK. If the passport office wished to change things, they could do so next week. Passports come under the royal prerogative, so a simple ministerial order should suffice to change the way things are done.
So are they genuinely looking into the intersex option? Or is this a follow-on to a very bright spark of an idea raised by Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert last year during a debate on abolition of ID cards. Why, he wondered aloud, do we put gender on documents when it isn’t absolutely necessary?
Indeed. So it wouldn’t exactly surprise me if this ongoing look at gender owes at least something to that intervention. But is it, is it, is it looking at intersex? Ah. Here the HO reverted to form and became annoyingly pedantic once more.
I called back. Did their statement cover intersex? Couldn’t say. However, the spokesperson did stress that they “are considering the gender options”.
All of them.
So, I ventured, that might include intersex?
Well, it would cover all options, he teased, doing his best neither to confirm nor deny.
I shall take that as a yes. It seems that UK.GOV are looking at what it can do with gender on UK passports and… given that Australia has just tossed a bloody large bomb into the midst of this debate, intersex is now likely to be fairly and squarely on the agenda.