OPINION: Why countries should recognize a third gender

by Maria Sjödin | OutRight Action International
Thursday, 11 November 2021 10:00 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds her and her child's passport. REUTERS/Fred Greaves

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Only 14 countries recognize some form of third gender on official identity documents.

Maria Sjödin is Acting Executive Director at OutRight Action International

Last month, the United States State Department issued the first U.S. Passport with an X gender marker to intersex activist Dana Zzyym. This meant the United States joined a small, but growing, number of countries that recognize some form of third gender option on official documents, sending a strong message in support of the rights of trans, intersex and non-binary people.

Much of ​the world is binary, with norms and expectations for those perceived as men or women. But the reality is, and has always been, that there are more than two genders.

Trans people identify with and/or express gender other than the one assigned at birth. Intersex people, like Dana Zzyym, are born with sex characteristics which do not fit into what is typically considered as male or female.

Others identify with a neutral gender or don’t identify with a gender at all. Numerous countries have traditional third gender communities, such as hijra and waria communities in parts of Asia, or two-spirit people in some Native American and indigenous Canadian cultures.

Why does a third gender marker matter? Because when a state does not recognize you for who you are, it strips you of humanity. Moreover, forcing people to select a gender marker that often doesn't correspond with how they present in terms of appearance can lead to confusion and even abuse.

People who use a gender marker other than F or M face a myriad of discrimination and barriers to accessing services ranging from healthcare to banking, from education to employment, all of which are crucial to ensuring basic livelihoods. They are also routinely subjected to degrading treatment, or even denied entry and detained at borders. This causes mental health issues such as anxiety and suicidal ideation.

Yet only 14 countries, according to publicly available sources, currently recognize some form of third gender option on official documents. They are Austria, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Germany, India, Iceland, The Netherlands, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Uruguay and the United States.

The most progressive are arguably Argentina and Uruguay, where individuals can self-identify as a third gender in all documents, without needing any medical, court or any other interventions. India, Pakistan and Nepal, all of which have traditional third gender communities, are next.

Many European countries consider themselves to be leaders when it comes to LGBT+ rights, from same-sex partnerships to legal gender recognition for trans people and protection against discrimination in the workplace. However, very few countries in Europe allow for third gender options in official records.

For example, while some form of recognition of a third gender is possible in Austria, Germany and The Netherlands, the process is problematic.

In Austria and Germany the third gender option is only intended for intersex people. This is undoubtedly important, especially considering the prevalence of medically unnecessary and invasive treatments inflicted on intersex children to make them “fit” the norms associated with being male or female. But it means that trans and non-binary people who don't identify as male or female are excluded.

In the Netherlands there is precedent for the third gender marker being granted, but only through court proceedings. This sends the message that your identity is only acceptable if it fits certain parameters and approval by someone else.

So offering a third gender option is important - across all identity documents.

It will not solve discrimination overnight, but it goes a long way. It is also not revolutionary. It is simply a reflection of reality that recognizes people who do not identify as male or female as their true selves and enables systems to benefit from these people not being excluded (banks want customers, right?).

It is great to see the United States follow the lead of countries in Latin America and ensure a third gender option on passports. I hope that others - including in Europe, if countries want to continue seeing themselves as leaders in LGBT+ equality - will follow suit. Only then can people determine their own identities, access basic social services and have their human rights recognized and respected.

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M, F, nothing? Netherlands mulls erasing gender from ID cards