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California recently became the first state in the nation to allow people to obtain a gender-neutral birth certificate. The law, S.B. 179, goes into effect beginning in 2018 and will provide nonbinary and intersex people with the option to request a new birth certificate with a third, nonbinary category.
People who define themselves as nonbinary consider themselves neither male nor female, while people who are intersex have atypical sexual anatomy. While California’s new legislation marks the first time that American citizens will have access to legal documents that represent their identity, several nations around the world have already adopted broader gender definitions.
Canadians are now able to identify as gender neutral on their passports and immigration documents thanks to changes rolled out in late August. This past July, Canada’s Northwest Territories began to allow “X” as a nonbinary option on birth certificates.
Searyl Atli Doty, a baby born in April in British Columbia, became the first known infant in the world to be issued a health card with the gender-neutral sex marker “U.” Doty’s parents explained that they wanted their child to have the ability to explore their gender identity as they grew up and matured.
The Canadian province refuses to issue the baby a birth certificate that does not specify a gender, which has led to a human rights complaint against the province by Doty’s parents.
In the United Kingdom, “Mx.” has become a popular and easy way to honorifically address people, whether male, female, or of other sex. It is usually the only gender-neutral title option for nonbinary people or people who do not wish to reveal their gender.
While most Western societies lack a tradition of recognizing gender identities that do not fit into the gender binary, hundreds of distinct societies around the world have longstanding traditions of recognizing third, fourth, fifth or more genders.
The Hijra of India have been part of South Asia’s culture for thousands of years. Throughout history, they were thought to have sacred powers and the capability of casting powerful curses.
When the British colonized India, it was made a criminal offense to be a Hijra. Some Hijras are born intersex and some cross-dress, but most members of the community do not identify as male or female.
The Supreme Court of India recognized Hijras as a third gender category on official documents April 14, 2014. This change followed similar legislative modifications in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. While many viewed the initiative as a big step towards combatting discrimination, many activists cautioned that not all people feel comfortable being designated as a “third sex.”
Indigenous tribes in North America recognize two-spirit people who are both male and female. Navajo tribes use the terms “nadleehi”, those who “transform” into femininity and “dilbaa”, those who “transform” into masculinity. Similar identities are described by the terms “alyha” and “hwame”, respectively, in Mohave tribes. Much like the Hijras of India, the Lakota tribe believed the “wintke” people possessed supernatural powers.
Needless to say, there have always been people who find themselves on the outside of the strict binaries to which mainstream cultures tend to adhere.
America and other Western nations clearly have a long way to go when it comes to respecting the sovereignty of people in defining their own identities.
Still, it is encouraging to note that people around the world have actively rejected restrictive gender systems throughout history and into modern day.