Opinion

What The Mainstream Is Getting Wrong About Gender Neutral

Earlier this month, a judge granted Christie Elan-Cane permission to bring a High Court challenge against the government over the issue of gender neutral passports. Since 1995, Elan-Cane has campaigned for the introduction of a third, ‘X’ category on passports, which could be used by people who don’t identify as male or female. Elan-Cane’s lawyer stated in written arguments submitted to the court that as many as 1% of the UK population could apply for an X passport. Certainly, we’re hearing more about gender identities that don’t fall within the binary categories of male and female. Just this weekend, singer Sam Smith said of his gender identity in The Sunday Times: “I don’t know what the title would be, but I feel just as much woman as I am man.” But though the gender neutral passport story has been covered widely in the media, this coverage hasn’t been as clear or accurate as it should have been.

“The coverage seems to look at the issue mainly from a trans perspective,” Meera, who identifies as non-binary, tells Refinery29. “Yes, there are trans people who haven’t fully transitioned or aren’t looking to transition who might like a gender neutral passport. But I certainly know a lot of people who’d be interested in having a gender neutral passport who don’t fit within that group. What the coverage seems to lack is an understanding of the other groups who might be interested in having a gender-neutral passport – particularly non-binary, gender nonconforming and genderqueer people.”

Rebecca Stinson, head of trans inclusion at LGBT charity Stonewall, agrees that some of the coverage has been misleading. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding, especially in radio and TV interviews, about the purpose of gender neutral passports. People seem to think that the X option is something trans people want. They think that all trans people would be using the X option on their passport rather than the M or F option. That confuses the conversation from the get-go. What we’re trying to get across is this: actually, it’s many non-binary and gender neutral people who would really like an X option.”

Stinson also says a very important purpose of gender neutral passports is being ignored. “What hasn’t been brought into the discussion – and it really should be – is the issue of safety when people travel abroad. When someone has to tick male or female, and it doesn’t correspond with how they express themselves or how they appear to other people, that can cause confusion at customs and passport control.

It can cause all kinds of grievances, like having to put up with body and security searches. And that can be really uncomfortable for people.”

The gender neutral passports story was covered on successive days by two ITV daytime shows, Good Morning Britain and This Morning. Both shows booked the same guest to share their experience of being gender fluid: Tate or Tabitha, a young person who does not know on any given day whether they identify as male or female until they wake up. Asked by This Morning’s Phillip Schofield, “How do you make that decision?” Tate or Tabitha replied: “Oh, here we go. There is no decision at all. Literally, it’s out of your control. You basically listen to yourself for a second. And you just know.”

Tate or Tabitha explained their own gender identity eloquently but during both discussions, they were the only gender nonconforming person involved. There was no second perspective from someone non-binary or gender neutral with a less fluid gender identity than Tate or Tabitha. “There does seem to be a tendency in the media to portray only the most extreme examples of people who are gender nonconforming,” Meera says. “Because I own a genderqueer clothing brand, I’ve had interest from large UK media outlets asking me about potentially appearing on TV shows. They will show interest, but then they find out that I’m relatively ‘normal’ in how I present, and then it’s just not interesting enough for them anymore.”

Stinson says she’s experienced something similar when it comes to discussing LGBT issues. “I’ve been scheduled to go on Good Morning Britain four times now,” she says. “They schedule me and then they drop me for someone who’s much more ‘queer’ or ‘interesting’ or looks a bit different. And it seems to be because I’m kind of average-looking, I’m not pushing boundaries enough. It’s really annoying. ”

Then again, is a show like Good Morning Britain even equipped to cover gender identity issues sensitively? “Piers Morgan is totally the wrong person to discuss this,” Karin, who identifies as gender neutral, tells Refinery29. “It almost feels like he wants to give the issue a bad name. He can’t relate to it because he’s a very straight man. Generally, I think there needs to be more positive stories in the media. I think we need more non-binary people on TV helping to paint a positive picture and helping people relate to us. It’s about showing there’s nothing ‘wrong’ or ‘not normal’ with us.”

These positive stories, Karin says, are crucial to raising awareness of different gender identities, and encouraging large companies and organisations to recognise them. Karin has successfully lobbied their workplace to introduce a gender neutral toilet – another issue the media frequently reports on. But in other areas of everyday life, Karin’s gender identity is overlooked and ignored. “The [gender neutral] title Mx hasn’t been well publicised so that people can understand what it’s for. I can use Mx at the library or at the doctor’s, but some of the banks haven’t caught up yet. When you want to change your title on your credit card to Mx, it’s difficult. And I’ve called up British Airways to say that until they introduce a gender neutral option, I’m going to book myself on flights as ‘Professor’.”

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