California made history last week as the first state in the union to allow for a third-gender option, “non-binary,” across all state documents. Not to be outdone by Oregon, which recently gave individuals the choice of “X” as a gender-neutral identifier on driver’s license, California extended this policy across all of its state-issued identity registrations, including driver’s licenses, state ID cards, and even birth certificates. Not only that, the bill simplifies the process for transgender people to change their gender identity on legal paperwork.
This was a long time coming, for two reasons. First, the collective American consciousness has seen a spur in queer-oriented changes in public policy over the past few decades — marriage equality, workplace protections, and hate crime statutes among others — but these shifts have traditionally protected sexual minorities far more than gender minorities. Gender minority groups still suffer higher rates of harassment and violence than do sexual minorities, and many states still lack workplace protections for transgender people. Second, the bill evidences the impact of advocacy and activism in a time when the current administration seeks to force these protections all the way back to the 1970s. The bill represents marked progress for non-binary people just months after the Trump administration walked back Title IX protections for transgender people and removed them entirely from the armed forces.
Critics of the bill, naturally, crawled out from the woodworks as soon as Rep. Atkins introduced SB 179 to the California House floor. Some pointed out legitimate logistical concerns, such as prison placement and searches, and collegiate sports team regulations. The new bill complicates issues where gender is the determinant factor in the decision-making process. This necessitates future revisions. Most critics, however, rely on the same outdated misappropriations of biological sex determination and a blanket mistrust of non-binary people, to reject the bill. Despite a lack of evidence, the opposition warned of deceitful abuses of the system, particularly against women and children, and of the litigation nightmares to come when people are no longer allowed to assume someone’s gender.
The same stubborn fallacy pervades any political discussion of gender — the notion that gender and sex are inextricably linked, and to separate the two would be a bearded, dress-wearing monkey wrench in the cogs of everyday life. Such beliefs stem from a gross misappropriation of science. Armchair geneticists preach that the sex chromosomes of a human determines gender, and that any belief otherwise is a direct attack to biology. Science is not supposed to be that simple; for example, a person can be assigned female even with XY chromosomes because they lack expression of the SRY gene. And, while we’re entertaining the argument that one’s biology is more important to consider than one’s own experiences, it is true that other biological factors beyond expression of X and Y chromosomes define gender identity. According to Scientific American, “the brain structures of the trans people were more similar in some respects to the brains of their experienced gender than those of their natal gender.” Who is to say that chromosomes are more important in classification than brains?
This archaic ideology finds its roots in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then, western culture viewed sexual and gender minorities as victims of mental illness to be studied, diagnosed, and reformed. Though medicalization no longer represents the consensus among experts, society at large still uses this connection to delegitimize the viewpoints of non-binary people by feeding into society’s fear of mentally ill people. Instead of seeing a person seeking to match their gender expression to their identity, these strict followers of eighth-grade biology see a predator lurking in the Starbucks bathroom.
Normally, we align these views with conservative families desperately trying to pray the gay away. But the lack of progress made on this issue before now, especially in such a left-leaning state as California, evidences the diversity of these beliefs. Unfortunately, traditional conceptions of gender also abound among leftist groups, even those whose histories braid conversations of gender with political discourse. Trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), gay people, and lesbians have all historically excluded non-binary people from their calls for societal change solely for the sake of political expediency. And the effects have only multiplied with time. Self-serving arguments divided these previously-allied groups by prioritizing assimilation of middle-class women, gay men, and lesbians over systemic change. Though early queer activists and feminists relied upon each other, the divergent evolution of their movements now situate non-binary people outside the interests of groups that ought to include them.
As a state entity, UC San Diego will no doubt find itself subject to similar practices in the near future. Currently, its documents request preferred pronouns but lack a third option for gender identification, instead opting for the usual binary of “M” and “F.” This new bill, however, signifies much more than those two letters ever could. By incorporating other options for gender identity, UCSD can bring attention to, and even alleviate, the stress that comes from forcing non-binary students and faculty into a foreign gender binary. Not only that, UCSD can encourage discussion and recognition of a group so often excluded from history by zealotous apostles of “science.”