Jamie Shupe could in 2017 become the first American to be issued with a passport with neither an M for male nor an F for female. Mx Shupe (as the former army sergeant prefers to Miss, Mr or Ms) plans to sue the State Department if it fails to allow a third option. “In a lot of ways ancient computer systems are tying this up,” Mx Shupe says. “Forms normally just have two boxes.”
In 2016 Mx Shupe went to a county court in Oregon to fill out the same paperwork as someone who has undergone sex-reassignment surgery. But instead of ticking one of the two gender boxes, Mx Shupe wrote “non-binary”. (This identity is used by people who feel that, regardless of their anatomy, they are a mix of the “man” and “woman” categories.) Mx Shupe became the first American legally to change their gender to non-binary.
One person, two spirits
Less rigid gender identities have a long history in America. Generations before the federal courthouses were built, more than 130 Native American nations recognised “two-spirit” people as having attributes of both men and women. They performed different roles across different tribes, but were largely viewed as equal; an anthropologist described We’Wha, a 19th-century Zuni, as performing “masculine judicial and religious functions” as well as “feminine duties” like doing the laundry. Many two-spirit people are alive today; other societies accept third-gender people, including the muxe of Mexico and Thailand’s kathoeys or “ladyboys”.
Northern European countries, such as Sweden (1972) and the Netherlands (1985), were the first to allow citizens to change their legal gender. But authorities required the applicant to “prove” they had been living as their affirmed gender for some time, and to undergo a physical change including sterilisation. This focus on the body shows how states often confuse sex with gender. “Sex” refers to anatomy; a person’s “gender” is a mixture of how they feel and how they present themselves.
Since 2015 Ireland simply asks individuals (transgender or otherwise) to indicate on a form what gender they consider themselves to be. Following the passage of laws in 2015 in Malta and 2012 in Argentina, individuals can affirm that they, like Mx Shupe, are neither a man nor a woman. Britain’s government may follow suit in 2017.
In 2014 India’s census registered 490,000 hijras, largely people seen as boys at birth because of their anatomy but who behave in a more typically female way. But India is struggling to define “transgender”, a term more commonly used in the West. A draft bill sitting before legislators defines transgender people as neither male nor female, stripping them of their right to identify themselves as either.
Activists will push for states to recognise their right to describe themselves as they wish, and seek to show that with all the ways that people can be people, gender is a poorer identifier than, say, height or eye colour. Mx Shupe’s cause is set to become an increasingly common one.