Non-binary Californians could be headed towards a major victory

A bill headed to the governor's desk would affirm gender diversity on identification documents.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut
CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut

In a big victory for gender minorities, California is on track to allow a non-binary gender option on driver’s licenses and birth certificates.

Senate Bill 179, introduced by Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), easily cleared the California Senate on Thursday on a 26-12 vote. Now, the legislation, which is also known as the Gender Recognition Act, will head to the desk of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.

Atkins emphasized the historic nature of the legislation, as well as its importance for many Californians.

“Many of us have an ID that matches our gender presentation, and so showing it is hassle-free,” said Atkins. “But for Californians who have an ID that does not match their gender presentation, showing it at airports, in shops or to law enforcement can be extremely stressful and lead to harassment or a delay in completing a transaction. It doesn’t need to be this way.”

The bill’s progression is part of a wave of gender-affirming legislative efforts around the country. In June, Washington, D.C. became the first jurisdiction in the United States to offer gender-neutral driver’s licenses, a move that gave non-binary, genderqueer, and agender people the option of choosing “X” on identification cards, as opposed to “F” or “M.” That law narrowly put D.C. ahead of Oregon, which announced a similar policy before D.C., albeit one that didn’t kick in until July 1. A similar bill is also under consideration in New York, which would allow residents to opt for a neutral option on driver’s licenses and identification cards.

That legislative wave stands in stark contrast to other policy efforts ongoing in the United States. In states like Texas and North Carolina, lawmakers have attempted to pass so-called “bathroom bills”, which require transgender and gender non-conforming residents to use restrooms correlating to the sex indicated on their birth certificate. Under President Donald Trump, federal efforts to crack down on queer and transgender rights have also seen an uptick. In February, the Trump administration rolled back protections for transgender students. Months later, in July, the Justice Department issued a brief similarly undoing protections for LGBTQ workers; that same month, Trump announced on Twitter that transgender military service members would be banned.


Efforts in California and elsewhere seem to defy policy moves like these, but they also point to a shift in conversations involving gender identity. National dialogue surrounding gender, even in relation to the transgender community, has emphasized the binary categories of male and female. By contrast, SB 179 and legislation like it acknowledges another possibility — that gender diversity extends far beyond two limited categories assigned at birth.

Other countries, like Canada and New Zealand, as well as much of South Asia, already allow for non-binary and gender-neutral markers on legal documents. But the United States has lagged behind, something that has long troubled non-binary and genderqueer Americans, many of whom feel overlooked and unacknowledged.

People assume “there are two different types of bodies and two types of genders, and that’s the way it’s been since the beginning of time, and that’s just not true,” Foster Noone, a non-binary 19-year-old Tulane University student, told the New York Times in June.

Noone was weighing in on the just-announced Oregon court decision, issued after Jamie Shupe, a retired U.S. army sergeant, petitioned for non-binary gender recognition in the state.

“I was denied the right as a child and while in the military to ever explore my gender identity because of the hostility of society for violating gender norms or for expressing any form of gender variance,” they told the Times. “So I was literally doing in my 40s and early 50s what children are doing nowadays.”


Cases like Jamie’s have opened up opportunities for other states to offer expanded protections and acknowledgement to non-binary residents. When she introduced the Gender Recognition Act in California, Atkins, an out lesbian, argued that the bill was a critical move for a state that has often led on LGBTQ rights. In D.C., which has a higher number of self-identified queer and transgender residents than any state in the country, action was also seen as crucial.

“Gender is a spectrum and some of our residents do not identify as male or female,” said D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau when the city’s own bill was introduced. “Current licenses force residents to conform to genders that don’t accurately reflect their identity. This has not only a practical impact but also a deeply negative emotional and mental health impact.”

Mental health and concern for non-binary residents has motivated lawmakers to introduce policy acknowledging gender diversity, but that’s not the only benefit of legislation like California’s bill. Privacy is also an important factor, Arli Christian, state policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality, told ThinkProgress in June.

“An ‘X’ gender marker allows individuals to have a more accurate marker,” Christian said, “but it also allows for more privacy. That’s really important, as well as the recognition that gender is a personal and private thing.”

California’s bill only has one hurdle left to go (the governor), but it’s unclear whether or not that will pose an obstacle. Brown has historically supported progressive policies, but the bill comes with a number of state expenses, and sponsors say they’re unsure of the governor’s stance. Regardless of Brown’s decision, SB 179’s backers argue the bill is integral to California’s identity.

“SB 179 demonstrates the inclusiveness of California and represents recognition from government that people can exist as more than just male or female,” said Senate Assemblymember Todd Gloria. “Further, SB 179 sends a clear message: no matter who you are or how you identify, we accept you here.”