Photo courtesy of Jay Wu, National Center for Transgender Equality.
On Tuesday, Nic Sakurai’s 6-month long push to have their non-binary gender identification reflected on their driver’s license came to an end.
“I got up really early. I wanted to be at the front of the line,” says the 36-year-old Columbia Heights resident, who lined up early this morning outside the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicle’s Benning Ridge Service Center to obtain a new license listing their gender marker as “X,” designating the license-holder as non-binary.
Enlisting the help of lawyers from the National Center for Transgender Equality and Whitman-Walker Health’s Gender & Name Change Clinic, Sakurai arranged for a meeting with DMV Director Lucinda Babers in March to address the prospect of obtaining a gender-neutral license.
Upon speaking with Babers, Sakurai and the legal advocates found that the DMV had already been planning to offer gender-neutral IDs to D.C. residents. Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser made the administrative change official, announcing that the DMV would begin allowing any resident, regardless of gender identification, to select “X,” for “unspecified/other” as the gender marker on their driver’s licenses and resident ID cards.
“I was the first one let in. I went in before the DMV actually opened,” says Sakurai, who was part of a group of about 10 individuals who had synchronized their visit to the DMV Service Center. “The DMV director was actually there, and she processed my ID before other people were let in, because they wanted to see that the system was working correctly.”
While the District is the first jurisdiction in the nation to approve such a policy in gender marker change — and will remain the only one that doesn’t require verification from a third party such as a signature from a medical provider or legal representative — Oregon has made a regulatory change allowing a non-binary gender option on identity documents. California, where a similar proposal passed the state Senate earlier this year, is expected to follow suit.
Several other countries, including Canada, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Australia, and New Zealand, already recognize non-binary genders on identification documents.
“I’ve been working in LGBTQ+ communities for over 18 years, and I remember, 14 years ago, seeing an article about the first “X” on a passport in Australia. So for me it’s been something that’s been on my mind for a long time,” says Sakurai. “For me, it means being able to exist and be recognized by my government, to not be erased. To know that, when I look at my own ID or have to show it to someone, that it’s not a lie, that it’s not a false representation of who I am.”
Jay Wu, the manager of media relations for the National Center for Transgender Equality, who identifies as non-binary, was also at the DMV to obtain their license. Because Wu already had a D.C. license, no additional documentation beyond the old driver’s licenses and the new gender marker change request form was required.
Because D.C.’s identification documents comply with the REAL ID Act passed by Congress in 2005, it takes a few weeks to process the licenses and make sure they have the proper security features. In the meantime, all new license applicants can receive a temporary paper copy while they wait for their license to be mailed to them.
“It went really smoothly. The DMV had the required forms ready, and the process itself was fairly quick,” says Wu. “From the time I actually got in line to the time I got out, I think it was less than 10 minutes. I was one of the last ones to get mine, but I saw everyone else coming out before me, looking ecstatic. holding their temporary IDs.”
Wu says the workers at the DMV were helpful and courteous during the process and seemed prepared to deal with requests for a gender marker change. However, J Sheffield, 27, a resident of D.C. from the Columbia Heights/Petworth area, says their experience was not as smooth as some others’.
“When I was called up, they actually ran my paperwork with my old gender marker on that first, even though it was the only thing I was there to change. They had to run it again, but luckily they caught that mistake before they actually handed me the paper ID they had just processed,” says Sheffield. “They were nice about it. I was still being misgendered and called ‘Ma’am.’ But ultimately, was able to get the ID that matches my gender identity.”
Sheffield says the new “X” gender marker will give some visibility and affirmation to non-binary, transgender, and intersex people who, despite having been around for centuries, have been heretofore ignored and erased by government agencies that relied on a binary male/female gender designation.
“We’re making baby steps,” Sheffield says. “Now, when someone sees the “X,” that can almost be a doorway to having a conversation and explaining what that means.”
Sheffield adds that they would love to be able to change other documents, including their birth certificate and passport, to reflect what’s on their license, but understands that there may be hiccups before everything is worked out.
“That is something that worries me, about passports and birth certificates and that kind of thing, what might be the repercussions from folks who may not want the affirmation these documents [provide] for non-binary or transgender or intersex folks,” says Sheffield. “I have my fingers crossed that people will continue to put in the work to create protections, and allow us to move forward, and have all our documents match up.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story had referred to Whitman-Walker Health’s legal clinic assisting with name and gender marker changes by an incorrect name. The proper name is the Name & Gender Change Clinic.
This story has been updated to clarify that D.C.’s policy change regarding non-binary and gender neutral licenses was an administrative change, while Oregon’s was regulatory, not statutory.