A year ago, I started the process of legally changing my name and gender. It was a leap I never thought I was going take, for one simple reason: For most of my life, I’d had no reason to believe the government would legally recognize my gender.
I’m nonbinary, which means that I don’t identify within the social categories we’ve constructed as “male” and “female.” While I use masculine pronouns and terminology to refer to myself at the moment, the truth is, I was never comfortable fully committing to the way our society defines and enforces “maleness” as part of my transition. As someone who’s been subject to intense misogyny and has been on the receiving end of toxic masculinity for my entire life, and as someone who’s always had what are considered traditionally “feminine” interests, why would I want to move into another set of gendered expectations that felt just as stifling as the ones I was assigned at birth?
Things changed in 2016 when an Oregon court ruled that a resident could legally change their gender to nonbinary. By July 2017, the state DMV had begun issuing new IDs to those who requested them with a “X” gender marker, rather than “M” or “F.” I was suddenly faced with a dilemma: Should I update my ID with an X marker?
The benefit of making the change was clear to me: I could finally have official recognition of my existence. I spent so many years being told that, no matter how I chose to define myself, I would always “really” be female simply by virtue of what was written on my birth certificate. Having formal legal recognition of my identity felt, to me, like an important step in establishing my legitimacy. It gave me another tool to advocate for myself in the workplace, in medical settings, and anywhere else I had to show my ID.
The potential negative implications, however, were many. At the time Oregon was issuing X markers on IDs, no other state was doing so (although Washington, D.C., announced a DMV policy change around the same time). Several had similar legislation in the works, but it would take time to pass and implement the new laws. So my ID might not be accepted outside of Oregon.
Even within Oregon, state systems had to be updated to accommodate the new gender category. While the new IDs would be available immediately, Oregon courthouses would be unable to update birth certificates with X markers for another six months. None of the state’s legal forms included nonbinary as a gender option. I was nervous that I would be throwing myself into a legal limbo if I updated anything too soon, possibly requiring additional paperwork and expense down the road.
I was also well aware of the larger political landscape. Under the Trump presidency, transgender rights have been under constant assault. By changing my ID to something other than male or female, I would automatically be outing myself as trans anytime I needed to establish my identity, which could potentially put me in danger of harassment or discrimination. At the very least, I knew that I was setting myself up to explain my life story to total strangers over and over again.
I also wouldn’t be able to update my federal records. Under Donald Trump, federal agencies have consistently refused to acknowledge the existence of nonbinary or intersex identities. The State Department has fought for years now to avoid issuing X markers on U.S. passports, and the Social Security Administration has followed suit. Even binary trans men and women have struggled under the Trump administration to renew their passports, so I knew that any attempt to change mine would likely go nowhere.
Would I be able to travel with my state ID instead? When I spoke to legal advocates to ask if the TSA would accept my nonbinary ID, I was told that no one had any idea, and that the TSA was refusing to issue guidance on the issue. I was advised to keep my old passport so that I could mark myself as “female” if I needed to get through security—but after changing my name, and as hormones change my voice and appearance, that becomes a problematic solution as well.
In the end, I chose to file for a name and gender change despite the bureaucratic hurdles. It was important to me that the government see people taking advantage of the option, and the more people who do it, the more likely the broader system is to change.
Because of the tangle of state and federal regulations, my identity documents are a mess. My Social Security record matches my legal name, but not my gender. I haven’t even attempted to update my passport or birth certificate. My insurance provider has me in its system as “female” so it can code me for gynecological treatment and hormone therapy, but my file is full of notes and flags in a desperate attempt to get providers to read my chart before trying to treat me.
That’s not to say that matters haven’t improved in the last two years. At the moment, 12 states issue nonbinary IDs—including my home state of Utah, a development I honestly never thought was going to happen. It looks like I will be able to update my birth certificate to match my legal gender after all. Oregon agencies have finally adapted to the change, allowing me to accurately fill out forms and give my information. And earlier this year, several airlines announced that they would begin to accept nonbinary ID when booking tickets. Just a few weeks ago, I was able to book a flight under my new legal name and gender for the first time in my life.
My situation isn’t unusual. The 2015 National Transgender Discrimination Survey has found that only 21% of transgender people in the U.S. have been able to update all of their identity documents. A startling 33% lack any form of ID that reflects their chosen name or their gender identity at all—filing for a name and gender change can be a complicated and expensive process, with requirements that vary from state to state. Some, like Oregon, will simply take you at your word and allow you to make the change with a single form. Others require letters from doctors, proof of hormonal treatments, and even evidence of surgery. For many, the legal and financial barriers are insurmountable.
Though I have nonbinary friends across the U.S. who could update their IDs, the vast majority have chosen not to. They look at these hurdles I’ve outlined and decide that it’s simply too risky. I’m willing to confront these obstacles because of my long career in advocacy, but most queer people are simply trying to live their lives without every interaction becoming a potential political statement. I hope that by being one of the first to refuse to be forced into the legal gender binary, I can make it easier for my friends to be open and honest about their identities in the future.