New rules for gender?

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”.

Which ones?

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.


15 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Carka said,

    What I’d imagine happened was that someone, when designing the original database template, decided, for whatever reason, to not put the “not null” keywords after the “sex” fields (which I’m going to randomly assume is a boolean field). This would allow one to put in the values 0 (for male, say), 1 (female) or NULL (for left blank).

    It wouldn’t cost any more in computational terms (although I shouldn’t be surprised if quite a lot of aviation computer systems have *assumed* that it is ‘not null’) to start using NULL as a third option.

    (I could also *swear* I’d already read about India doing something along these lines about two years back. Oh well.)

  2. 2

    […] mentioned in my previous post, i was amazed, surprised and generally gob-smacked to receive a direct answer from UK.GOV. Yes: the […]

  3. 3

    Whilst I think this is a very good idea for intersex people, (having read somewhere else) that the UK will add an ‘x’ for all people; this could actually spark some problems for trans folks who use their passport as a form of id (providing they have changed it to include their identified gender) when confronted in the toilets or another scenario.

    I for one use it as a proof of id for my gender (if I am ever confronted by anyone). If we followed the Australian rules of it being optional; so if you want to have an ‘x’ then that’s down to yourself and the usual process following a letter from your GP or your GIC.

  4. 4

    As I understand it, the ‘X’ option was added to passports in order to deal with mass migrations after the Second World War, when paperwork was being rushed through and foreign names often made sex unclear to officials. It has remained because it continues to be convenient.

    In India an ‘E’ option is now available on most official documents; I believe this includes passports. It stands for ‘eunuch’, in keeping with Indian traditions of classifying sex.

  5. 5

    Shirley Anne said,

    Despite all the arguments I still think there should be only two options. If you are male or identify as such then M, if female then F. If transitioning then M or F dependent on choice. If Eunuch as has been suggested then M, a eunuch is simply a male who has had his genitals removed, if he wants to present as male or female then M or F. Why make the distinction that you have been castrated or transitioned with new ‘bits’? It solely depends on how you identify as either male or female. If you are in possession of both male and female genitals the same rule still applies. If things aren’t kept simple we could end up with almost every letter of the alphbet being used to signify a deviation from the binary basic. The whole idea is ridiculous. Put it simply, a person should know which gender they identify as and there are really only two, anything else is a variation on a theme. That’s my twopence worth.

    Shirley Anne xxx

    • 6

      spansexual said,

      Shirley, please respect that not all eunuchs identify as socially male or female. Nothing you say will change my reality. I, OTOH, can now have legal identification without pretending my being is limited by either of two very limiting boxes.

      • 7

        Shirley Anne said,

        Simple answer to that one is to have them both as markers. You said it yourself, you cannot be limited to one choice or the other. Having both would truly reflect your position don’t you think? Your social identification or preferences do not preclude the basic facts that you have either both genitals or none at all. The marker simply states a physical state. This is one reason I am opposed to more than the binary system we have in place.

        Shirley Anne xxx

    • 8

      Hi Shirley.

      I’m Intrersex, and I identify as female.

      But I know plenty of Intersex people who don’t identify as either M or F, and have bodies to back that identification up.

      To force them to lie about who they are, especially in a context where they can be prosecuted for making false statements, is wrong.

    • 9

      Carka said,

      Binary privilege, much?

      • 10

        spansexual said,

        Shirley, no matter how many times you insist that even eunuchs must be identified as male or female, that doesn’t change the truth that for many those markers are not applicable, and you do violence to them in insisting they call themselves what you decide they must be called. I am a eunuch, but i am not just male, for i have a vagina. I look like a man when clothed, but every inch of my skin is feminine to the touch. Either/or just does not apply, and you can gainsay that till the cows come home, but nothing you say will take away from the legal right i now enjoy to not be stuck in anyone else’s ideas about what sex I’m allowed to be.

  6. 11

    Shirley Anne said,

    An addendum to my post
    The only problem I see with either having a null marker or a gender marker when your genitals don’t match is when a person is frisked for any reason at the control point. Does the person then have to declare out of decency that their genitals do not match their marker? Who then carries out the frisking?

    Shirley Anne xxx

  7. 14

    Gillian said,

    The X or null marker tends to make you stand out with no advantage compared with having a male passport in male name, whilst traveling in female name and female clothes and hair. Still have to explain the difference. What’s required is the ability to have a passport in each gender. The IPS were offering an ID card in both genders till the scheme was scrapped. It is possible to have 2 passports in the same gender to overcome visa difficulties.

  8. 15

    […] Transgender Working Group. Sarah was instrumental (along with Zoe O’Connell) in influencing Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert to raise the issue of gender neutral documentation such as passports in th…. Something that will be vitally important to many nonbinary, genderqueer, transgender and gender […]

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