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Gender-Neutral Passports Don’t Guarantee Equal Rights

The Netherlands recently joined a short list of countries allowing gender-neutral documents, but equality remains out of reach.

by Milou Deelen and Noor Spanjer
11 December 2019, 9:30am

Storm Vogel. All photos by Lin Woldendorp

In the summer of 2017, the Dutch national rail service (NS) announced it would no longer address passengers as “ladies and gentlemen”, but with the gender-neutral “dear travellers”. The announcement caused quite an uproar at the time, before dying down relatively quickly.

But the biggest win of all for genderfluid and non-binary people in the Netherlands came in October 2018. After a ten-year legal battle, Leonne Zeegers, 59, obtained the first gender-neutral passport in the country, which features an “X” in the spot where there’s normally “M” or “F” for male or female. Leonne was born intersex – her reproductive anatomy doesn’t fit the typical definitions of female or male. She identifies as genderfluid and doesn’t mind which pronouns she is addressed by.

What she did mind is not having the option to be identified as anything other than female or male on her passport. That’s why she decided to file a lawsuit at a local court. She argued that being described as “female” felt like a “legal distortion with no connection with reality”. “Nature has put me in the world as [gender] neutral,” she told the Dutch national broadcaster NOS.

Zeegers’ case set a precedent for registering gender at birth, with the court deciding the third option of “gender could not be determined” should be available. But since the decision in 2018, only one other person has had their passport changed in this way.

Nanoah Struik, a 19-year-old non-binary person, also had to win a lawsuit to get the elusive “X”. That’s because Zeeger’s precedent has yet to be enshrined in Dutch law via parliament. And that, unfortunately, might not happen anytime soon. Earlier this year, Dutch ministers Raymond Knops and Sanders Dekker announced they’d rather wait for “international developments” – or, for other countries to make the first move.

Storm Vogel
Storm Vogel, 34.

But other European states have done just that: Malta introduced the “X” on passports in 2017 and the first request followed in 2018. Denmark has been issuing gender-neutral passports since 2014, Germany since 2013. Nepal has an “O” option (for “other”), India a “T” (for third gender).

As things stand, the only way to obtain a gender-neutral passport in the Netherlands is to invest a bunch of time and money in a lawsuit without knowing if you’ll win. That’s what Storm Vogel, 34, is having to deal with at the moment. “Ideally, I would just be able to go to City Hall, or better yet, login online and change my gender to an ‘X’,” Storm told VICE.

Instead, they’ll need to go to court, and get an expert evaluation from a psychologist, which they find unacceptable. “Being non-binary isn’t a mental illness or disorder,” Storm argued. “So why do I need an expert who doesn’t know me to examine me? What would they even test me for? The only expert who knows who I am is me.”

They call it an equal rights issue, because cis people don’t need to prove their gender. And it’s why Storm is refusing to go to a psychologist, saying they’ll keep fighting until they get their passport changed without it. Law firm Clara Wichmann is working pro bono on their case.

Storm Vogel

But there’s one more catch. Even if Storm eventually manages to get their gender marker officially recognised, the passport still won’t guarantee them the same rights as cis people.

Most European countries offering gender-neutral passports still identify non-binary people as either male or female on their civil registry. It means that if you get married or join the army, for example, you’ll still be considered a man or woman. Malta and Denmark are the only exceptions.

The inequality becomes more apparent if you want to travel across borders. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association reports that people with gender-neutral documents often “face difficulties when attempting to enter another country” and during the visa application process.

According to Storm, the bottom line is that the gender they have been registered with is simply incorrect. “I want to feel like I’m being acknowledged, like I exist,” they said. “Although I think it’s stupid that a piece of paper should determine that, I do think it will have a big impact on how I feel.”

Tagged:
immigration
LGBTQ
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genderfluid
VICE International
intersex
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gender neutral passport
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