Joshua M. Ferguson is a filmmaker, writer and advocate who has been fighting to obtain a non-binary gender birth certificate in Ontario — a step that would help them change all of their identification. The Ontario government, has placed their application on ‘pending’ status while it goes through a policy review.
Ferguson says the Ontario government needs to act now.
I can still feel the piercing gaze. The questions aimed at figuring out why I don’t look like the ‘M’ on my ID.
Surrounded by layers of security measures — cameras, personnel, machines — at an airport, the looks I got that day froze me in place. Then the familiar occurred: agents who clearly were confused by my gender marker prepared to conduct a search. I remember voicing concern that an invasive investigation was about to take place, and asking to speak to someone who identified closer to my gender expression. Another agent eventually approached me, someone who’s gender seemed more familiar, and the intrusion began again. That day, the metal detector alarm wasn’t set off. But, a more significant alarm rings every time my forms of identification are presented.
It was but one example of a system that continues to fail me — a system in which I do not exist. None of my personal identification documents reflect my personhood. I have been living with a false assignment on my birth certificate for more than three decades of my life.
I’m trying to change that, as the first person to publicly apply for a non-binary birth certificate in Ontario.
Non-binary is an inclusive term for anyone who does not identify with their assigned sex at birth — male, female, intersex — or gender as only man or woman. While the trans narrative often focuses on trans women and trans men, non-binary people make up more than one-third of the trans community, according to the National Centre for Transgender Equality.
In applying for a non-binary birth certificate I am not only advocating for my right to exist, but the rights for many other Canadians who don’t have an equal place yet in society. It is important to understand why a non-binary option matters. A birth certificate is the fundamental piece of ID that a person requires to correct all other forms of ID. Without it, no other IDs can accurately convey my gender identity.
I am not forcing a non-binary option on anyone else with the introduction of non-binary on birth certificates and other IDs.
The birth certificate that I recently applied for is the truthful one. The one that I choose for myself, not what has been enforced upon me by a system that fails to recognize people who are neither male/female and man/woman.
Someone could argue that this is merely a paper and shouldn’t have such an effect on me, but if you want to make that argument then you are probably already recognized and included in society. The thing is, I’m not.
People may wonder why sex and gender markers need to include a third-option — imagine being policed every time you present a form of identification. Routine experiences such as going to the liquor store or airport security become not only much more stressful, but a real threat to your safety. You are gender-policed and publicly exposed every time you present an ID that does not reflect who you are. Think about what it would feel like to not be able to access a birth certificate that properly identifies you.
The Ontario government responded to my application in June: “At this time a change of sex designation to non-binary’ is unavailable,” and notes that the Ministry is “working to develop a gender-neutral option for the Ontario birth certificate and is currently conducting a policy review.” Oddly, the short form for non-binary option, ‘X’ designation, is already available for driver’s licenses in Ontario and even on birth certificates in the Northwest Territories. But not on birth certificates in this province — and in many others.
This is a critical moment where the Ontario Government could be a leader across Canada and the world by introducing a non-binary option for birth certificates. At least eight countries have a third/gender-neutral option for gender and/or sex on identity documents: Australia, Bangladesh, Germany, India, Malta, Nepal, New Zealand and Pakistan. Our IDs are an important step forward because they will help take our invisibility to a tangible place.
I want to be clear about something important. I am not forcing a non-binary option on anyone else with the introduction of non-binary on birth certificates and other IDs. This means that you won’t see any changes on your forms of identification unless you request such a change.
I worry about non-binary people who have access to fewer resources than I do
There has also been a wave of non-binary awareness and visibility recently. Last year, Jamie Shupe, in Portland, Oregon, and Sara Kelly Keenan, of Santa Cruz, California, won legal recognition as non-binary, with Keenan even obtaining an intersex birth certificate. A bill before the California legislature proposes recognizing non-binary gender identity on all forms of ID, including birth certificates and driver’s licenses, removing the requirement that a person must obtain physician’s statement and appear before a court to make the change. Washington, D.C. and Oregon now offer X-options on driver’s licenses.
In Canada, Newfoundlander Gemma Hickey was the first person to publicly apply for a non-binary birth certificate earlier this year, which was denied. Hickey now has a Supreme Court date in that province set for November to appeal the decision. And federally, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that various departments are working with Passport Canada to introduce an X-option on Canadian passports.
Recently, the Northwest Territories’ Vital Statistics updated its policy for birth certificates to introduce a third-option for gender (X-designation) and removed the requirement for a physician’s letter supporting a change of gender designation. Ontario needs to take the the territory’s policy further to acknowledge non-binary identity by allowing for a non-binary designation and not just the short-form X designation. Non-binary is our identity that we should be able to identify with on our most crucial form of ID — the birth certificate.
The weight of responsibility that I feel is hard to articulate.
We should no longer be erased. Federal and provincial laws serving to protect gender identity and gender discrimination exist, but the government is practicing gender-based discrimination by refusing to issue non-binary birth certificates. I worry about non-binary people who have access to fewer resources than I do to deal with the tangled administrative web that this kind of arbitrary delay can create.
Messages from non-binary kids, teens, adults, families with non-binary children and supporters who are encouraging me with their kindness emphasize the significance of this debate for their own lives and those of people they love. I think about them every time I feel the opposition against non-binary recognition. The weight of responsibility that I feel is hard to articulate. These messages remind me just how many of us exist and how many kids and teens deserve to grow up in a world where they don’t have to feel the erasure and stigma of being non-binary.