05/16/2012 12:43 EDT | Updated 07/16/2012 05:12 EDT

He, She, It -- Does It Really Matter What our Gender is on Passports?

Passport Canada is looking into policy changes to the gender requirement on passport, and introducing a "genderless" passport for transgendered peoples. But the question isn't whether we should introduce a third "gender" to passport policies, but rather, should there be gender at all on passports?


Passport Canada is considering policy changes to the gender requirement on passports. This has already happened in Australia where a third gender X (indeterminate) has been added for transgendered people. In the wake of the Australian move, folks have raised a number of concerns from security implications to more hassles at the airport. Aside from the fact we've always done it like this, what's so helpful about identifying gender?

A friend of mine flew to the U.S. this past weekend and noted that when she landed at Newark airport, people travelling on visas were being fingerprinted and given retinal scans. Full body scanners are now in use. It's the way we're heading -- gender categories or not.

The argument seems to centre around the discrepancy between what someone looks like in person, and what his or her passport photo looks like. Can't we simply carry around letters of explanation -- I had an accident, I had bariatric surgery, testosterone gives me facial hair, I've lost the breasts but still have the penis. Sure you can carry a letter, but I'd argue that's not the problem.

The bigger issues arise when a person presents differently than his or her gender category. If I'm a "masculine" looking women, or a "feminine" looking man, if I'm androgynous and my sex is ambiguous, I'm still required to check a box -- to pick one or the other. Some people don't identify with their biological gender and want another option. Some people identify completely with their gender category. There are some who are think they don't fit in anywhere.

Regardless, what use is the category in knowing who a person really is? Surely if safety is our primary concern, we can find better ways of identifying travellers than some official's individual judgment that I look, or don't look the way my sex is supposed to.

That I am who I say I am is what's important -- that I'm not disguised or pretending to be someone else. That's the security risk, not whether I have a penis, a vagina or both. I'd argue the gender category itself leads to gratuitous harassment. When you don't fit society's definition of what looks male or female, checking the box that says you are is often taken as an affront to people in positions of authority. In this case it's customs and immigration officials who have the power to hold you back, search you, make you miss your flight or refuse to let you into their country.

Indeed, under a series of changes to the Aeronautics Act last July, airlines were not allowed to seat a passenger if his or her appearance contradicted the gender indicated on the identification he or she presented. That's pretty wide open for abuse.

Leslie Fineberg, American author and transgendered activist, who passes as a man, and carries identification to support that, said it was easier to get "Male" on her driver's license than to face the abuse from police that came regularly from not looking "Female" enough.

Much of the harassment people experience at border crossings is not because they are suspected of not being who they say they are, but because some people don't like who they are.

If the fear is that governments are going to get even more invasive in their attempts to identify us, why is it we think gender categories, that don't seem to work well anyway, are going to slow that process? Add to all this the fact that we have a growing population that doesn't fit either category, and I think the case for dropping male or female makes a lot of sense.