The arrival of a new gender category beyond male and female on Australian passports has revealed an emerging battleground in gender rights: the indeterminate or X category.
Under guidelines released Thursday, Australian passports will now give citizens three gender options – male, female and indeterminate – in an effort to curb discrimination against transgender and intersex Australians as they travel.
Intersex individuals, those who do not identify as completely male or female biologically, can now legally list their gender as "X." Transgender people, those whose biological gender doesn't fit the way they see themselves, will not be allowed to tick "X," but will be able to choose whether they are male or female, as long as they have a doctor's statement that they are transitioning.
"This amendment makes life easier and significantly reduces the administrative burden for sex- and gender-diverse people who want a passport that reflects their gender and physical appearance," Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said in a statement.
Advocates say the law reform is significant: While Canada and the United States permit gender changes on passports, the Australian ruling is the first to go beyond M and F categories.
"This is just one small piece of the puzzle, but it's an important one, because it allows people to reflect how they present and who they are," says Talia Johnson, a transsexual woman who works as an information technology consultant in Ottawa.
Ms. Johnson says Canada is a long way behind Australia.
Passport Canada did not respond with comment before press time, but Ms. Johnson says she was told by the agency that for those seeking a gender change on their passport, it requires medical documentation supporting that they have undergone sex reassignment surgery. Applicants who haven't had SRS can get a passport that states their preferred sex, but these are valid for just two years, and are issued only to applicants who can provide documentation that they will undergo SRS in the next year.
That's a hurdle for Ms. Johnson, who has not undergone SRS but considers herself physiologically female following extensive hormone treatments. She points out that many transsexuals don't undergo SRS, but use alternative methods such as mastectomy, hysterectomy and hormone therapy.
"Personally, I would use an F [for female]because that's where I am in my life and that's my physiology now. Finally my body physiology is matching what my brain is expecting," she said, adding that she doesn't "have the cash" to have the surgery.
(She says she had no trouble switching her Ontario driver's licence: "All I had to do was take a letter from my endocrinologist and my name change certificate and it was done. That was easy.")
In Australia, SRS is no longer a prerequisite for getting a passport with a new gender, according to that country's passport office: "A letter from a medical practitioner certifying that the person has had, or is receiving, appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition to a new gender, or that they are intersex and do not identify with the sex assigned to them at birth, is acceptable."
This is also the case in the United States, which abandoned the SRS requirement for transgender people's passports last year. A number of states including New Mexico, Washington, California and Massachusetts have also done away with surgery as a necessity for gender changes to a driver's licence.
Nor is SRS a prerequisite for gender changed on a passport in Britain, according to the Scottish Transgender Alliance.Ms. Johnson says: "For us here in Canada, it just provides another thing we can point to and say, look, get into the 21st century. Get with it."
During her August correspondence with officials, she was told: "Please note that you may encounter difficulties travelling with a passport showing your assumed sex."
Having undergone two years of hormone therapy and looking far more like a woman than a man, Ms. Johnson points out, "I'm going to have more trouble travelling if my passport says an M instead of an F."