What does the new Gender Recognition Act mean for California

For many of us socialization, our family and school taught us about the gender binary. We learned to categorize people into a box: either you are female or male. Girl or boy. Feminine or masculine. Pink or blue. On the surface, the gender binary helps us make sense of the world in simplistic black-or-white terms; however, boxing gender into just two categories doesn’t allow for the exploration or freedom for one to discover one’s individual gender expression and identity.

Think about it – How many times have we taught our young children to stay within their gender lanes? Multiple studies have shown that when interacting with babies as young as 3 months old, adults play with babies differently based on the babies’ perceived gender (look up the Baby X experiment). “Boys aren’t supposed to play with dolls. Nice girls don’t run around and roll around in the dirt. Boys will be boys. Nice girls behave.” What’s wrong with these statements, you ask?

Not only are we constricting and imposing gender roles on impressionable and malleable children, we are not allowing our children to explore and express who they really are. We are also teaching our children to be intolerant of differences. While at times the gender binary can be confining, in other times, the gender binary can have even more insidious effects.

If we dig deeper into the gender binary, we find that gender norms often go hand in hand. For example, female-identified individuals are expected to be feminine, soft, nurturing, submissive, and uphold purity. Male-identified folks are held to a masculine, assertive, action-oriented, dominating standard. On the surface, these are harmless generalizations but upon closer inspection, they can breed toxic masculinity and patriarchy that oppresses women and men alike.

It is not a coincidence that transgender women are at very high risk of homicide and suicide in the U.S. For people who have wholly invested their identity on the gender binary, when they encounter people who do not prescribe to the same ideals, it can cause people to be confused, scared, or act out violently and aggressively to nonbinary people who are simply trying to live their authentic lives. There are whole courses in college dedicated to this topic that this article can hardly scratch the surface of. Embracing the concept of non-binary gender expressions is just one way of disintegrating the gender binary.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, non-binary gender is defined as a someone whose gender expression does not fit neatly into being either male or female. Under the umbrella of non-binary gender expression, a person can identify as being a mix of female and male or fluctuating between male and female at any given moment and many more nuanced expressions. There are numerous terms to describe this spectrum, such as agender, genderqueer, genderfluid, and bigender. These terms are not necessarily interchangeable and the differences may be subtle but important. It is crucial to note that although some transgender and intersex people may identify as non-binary, it does not mean the same thing and not all identify as such.

This idea of non-binary gender is not new, not something created by the young whippersnappers of today’s generation, and not a phase. Being nonbinary has been recognized by Native American cultures since the dawn of time and have been given a name – Two Spirit. In fact, most Native American cultures recognize 5 genders – female, male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male, and transgender. In the Native American culture, parents give their children gender-neutral clothing from birth to encourage them to form their own gender expression and identity. Community members revered Two Spirit people because they were perceived as wiser for being able to tap into both masculine and feminine perspectives.

I’d like to think that some regions in our country, specifically California, are slowly changing to more inclusive practices for the better. In October of this year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into effect the Gender Recognition Act, which will allow transgender, non-binary, and intersex individuals to update their gender on state-issued identification documentation to a third gender – non-binary. This includes California state-issued IDs, driver’s licenses, birth certificates.

The Gender Recognition Act will streamline the process to make it easier for individuals to change their gender on legal documentation by bypassing the requirement to obtain a sworn statement from a physician confirming that they have gone through clinical treatment. The law also allows minors to update the gender on their birth certificate with parental permission. The Gender Recognition Act will go into effect in 2019.

So how can you be a good ally to the non-binary community? If this is your first encounter with the non-binary community and you are confused, that is okay and understandable. The great news is you don’t need to have full comprehension of the gender spectrum to be a respectful human being. A good rule of thumb is to never assume someone’s gender. You can respectfully inquire about someone’s gender by asking for their gender pronouns. Introduce yourself and your pronouns and then ask them for theirs in return. And the best thing to do is simply listen.