BLOG: Sexed passports are a relic of inequality – let’s ditch them


April (17) has an interesting take on gender identity when it comes to passports.

The passport, when used correctly, is a powerful tool. It can be an album of stamps to commemorate journeys, a tangible symbol of belonging to a country you love – and these days, they tend to have contactless chips embedded in them, as though to fool you into thinking they’re as inclusive and non-judgemental as the humble Oyster card. Alas, we are now realising this isn’t the case.

1 in 250 of us in the UK identify our gender as non-binary – neither male nor female – and 1 in 4,500 babies are born intersex, with bodies, chromosomes and hormone levels not cleanly one definition or the other. These aren’t Western first world problems – they are social and biological facts stretching back hundreds of years and still thriving. Check out the Hijra in India (who have their own distinct pride flag), or Indonesia’s Bugi people, who recognise three sexes and five genders and get along without hysteria.

So when you look into it, it quickly becomes clear that we’ve launched ourselves into unfounded outrage. It can be summed up colloquially as “How dare all these people refuse to tell me what’s in their heads/between their legs! It’s vital information for being allowed on a plane!”. As much as Britons love to proclaim how friendly and non-conquering we are now, an international country, there remains the stain of the righteous Empire. Man and woman. Adam and Eve.

We can’t even bring ourselves to acknowledge the fact – brought to public attention by campaigner Christie Elan-Cane last year – that the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation recognises three sex options in passports rather than two. Ten countries issue passports stating “X” – not just India, but our closer neighbours like Canada, Germany and Ireland. And all officials can say in their defence is that doing the same here wouldn’t be “administratively coherent” and would interfere with the need “to ensure security at national borders”.

The last time I touched down at Heathrow, I certainly didn’t shuffle through Customs hoping my passport, makeup and dresses weren’t confiscated as weapons of mass destruction! To seriously think such things would be is childish nonsense.

Intersex lifestyle blogger Kelvin Sparks offers a different perspective. Identifying his gender as male, he feels it would be simpler and safer if the category was abolished altogether – especially since intersex people often hide their status for fear of violence or discrimination.

“I also worry about automatically assigning intersex people an X on their birth certificate,” he tells me on Twitter, referring to his own lived experience – he holds a male passport. “The current system to change gender on passports in the UK is pretty easy, but intersex trans people really struggle with accessing GRCs [Gender Recognition Certificates, which are needed to alter a birth certificate].”

But of course, just as people should have the freedom to be who they truly are, they should also have the freedom to hold their own opinions. If you disagree with this logical solution to a problem that affects so many, it is your right to do so. Just don’t ruin the lives of those less fortunate than you.