In a world that’s increasingly under surveillance, from where we travel, or the documents the state uses to define us (and that people use to define themselves), trans and gender diverse identities have the potential to be subject to increased monitoring. This is due to the pervasive and enduring requirement for disclosure of gender along binary norms – something that can be problematic for trans and gender diverse people.
Beyond binary norms
A research project underway in the gender studies program at the University of Melbourne – led by Dr CL Quinan – is exploring the ways binary gender norms impact mobility, with particular interest in the ways state regulation and biometric technologies impact trans-gender and gender diverse people.
The project uses a variety of methods to interrogate identity politics including ethnography, socio-legal analyses, and visual/artistic analyses, and although the project seeks primarily to play an academically exploratory role, it also encompasses an engagement role for stakeholders, including community and advocacy groups, industry, lawyers, border police, and policymakers.
Among the outcomes of the project so far is an investigation into the use of non-binary and non-gendered markers in official travel documents like passports – moving beyond enforced male and female M and F, to X.
The context for the X marker project
A growing number of countries around the world are allowing third gender markers and non-binary possibilities in official documents, such as passports and public registries, of which the X marker in the sex or gender field has become the most common.
The X marker has a complex set of impacts on gender diverse people, and while it’s not without difficulties and problems, research by Dr Quinan from the University of Melbourne’s School of Culture and Communication has shown that for many people it has created possibilities for gender self-definition, liberation and affirmation.
However, concerns about the use of X relate to the potential for increased surveillance of gender diverse people by rendering them hyper-visible, as well as the possible ‘reification’ of gender – the policing of exclusive boundaries around definitions of male and female.
Nepal was an early adopter of the X marker, although take up rates were initially low, prompting speculation that people may have been hesitant to use it for fear of negative ramifications.
It is now available as a recognised marker in Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Denmark, Germany, India, Malta, Nepal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Pakistan, although the process for eligibility differs by jurisdiction, with uneven effects. For instance, in the Netherlands an individual must sue their local municipality and have their case decided by a judge, making it an expensive process and therefore inaccessible to many people.
Undertaking the research
To explore views within the gender-diverse community about third gender markers, Dr Quinan and colleague Dagmar Oosthoek conducted semi-structured interviews with participants sourced from gender-diverse social media groups who had adopted the X marker.
The interviews were audio-recorded and analysed, and presented anonymously as a series of case-studies. Four of them were presented as vignettes in a publication entitled “Trans and Non-Binary Identities and a Politics Beyond Recognition” in the book Advances in Trans Studies (2022).
Among the experiences the interviewees recounted were:
- Using X meant they could not and did not want to nominate a gender; X meant the absence of gender, not a third gender
- Having to disclose gender on documents (including X) was problematic because it didn’t account for gender fluidity
- Using the X marker in their passport facilitated recognition, creating a key, legal identity document with a purpose beyond travel
- Travelling with a passport using the X marker could engender unease or fear, given the varying attitudes toward gender diversity in some locations.
- Identifying with a marginalised gender position and questioning western constructs of gender had shaped their understanding of coloniality and caused a more radical awareness of social justice movements.
By highlighting trans voices and experiences through an analysis of the X marker, the researchers’ reflections aimed to uncover the complex and diverse relationships that gender-diverse communities have with issues like legal recognition and self-determination, as well as the ways in which individuals are able to repurpose the current gender categories on offer in order to survive and thrive.
Although the X is not a marker without difficulties and problems, for many it is vital and has opened multiple doors toward liberation and affirmation.
Read more about the 'Borders of Gender: Law, Securitization, and Trans and Non-Binary Subjectivities'.
Quinan, C.L. and Oosthoek, D. (2022), "Trans and Non-binary Identities and a Politics Beyond Recognition: On the Possibility of the X", Johnson, A.H., Rogers, B.A. and Taylor, T. (Ed.) Advances in Trans Studies: Moving Toward Gender Expansion and Trans Hope (Advances in Gender Research, Vol. 32), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 93-107. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1529-212620210000032007
Quinan, C.L. and Hunt, Mina. (2022) ‘Non-Binary Gender Markers: Mobility, Migration, and Media Reception in Europe and Beyond.’ European Journal of Women’s Studies. 28(4): 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1177/13505068211024891
Quinan, C.L., Molitor, V., Van den Brink, M., and Zimenkova, T. (2020) ‘Framing gender identity registration amidst national and international developments’. Introduction to Special Issue ‘Bodies, identities, and gender regimes: Human rights and legal aspects of gender identity registration.’ International Journal of Gender, Sexuality and Law. 1(1): 1-25. https://doi.org/10.19164/ijgsl.v1i1.971
C L Quinan, Mina Hunt, Biometric Bordering and Automatic Gender Recognition: Challenging Binary Gender Norms in Everyday Biometric Technologies, Communication, Culture and Critique, 2022, tcac013, https://doi.org/10.1093/ccc/tcac013
Partly funded by the Australian Department of Education and Training
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First published on 16 May 2022.
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