What the “X” Stands For

A photo of a group of people holidng up a giant version of an ID card, with Quinn Nelson pointing at the X gender marker. Around Quinn are provincial politicians, including Premier Notley

Two weeks ago, I travelled up to Edmonton to help the Alberta government make the announcement that people will have the option of listing their gender as X, in addition to F and M. (This is 2 years after legislating it in the “Vital Statistics and Life Events Modernization Act“, which carried a caveat that the option would only become available when the Federal government policies were also updated.) The change affects Alberta drivers licenses (or equivalent for people who don’t have a drivers license), Alberta birth certificates, and other things like fishing licenses. (Yes, fishing licenses have gender markers… your guess is as good as mine.) It was a wonderful opportunity, and I am so grateful for being given the platform to speak, as well as having the honour of being the first person to apply for the new X option. My new ID card listing my “sex” as X arrived in the mail a few days ago, and it’s still really surreal to me. I’ve been having trouble finding the words to express just how happy having this sheet of plastic makes me. Having it most certainly won’t change most of the alienating challenges of being non-binary in my life β€” it won’t fix the gendered washroom problem, for instance β€” and I honestly expect that I’ll have limited stories to tell about the X providing direct, practical changes in my life.

(Note: I’m going to write as if “sex” and “gender” are interchangeable, usually writing “sex” if specifically writing about how gender markers appear printed on documents, sometimes with scare-quotes. This is partially because our IDs are written with “sex”, even though most policy and interpretation considers it to mean gender. This is also because I don’t subscribe to the idea that sex and gender are two distinct, separate concepts. Maybe I’ll write something about that later, but this article is similar to how I see it.)

The direct effects will be limited because gender markers are all but useless and unused today, (at least officially,) but what it will give me is an incredible peace of mind. It will ensure that the card I carry around with me, and use to tell people who I am, won’t disagree with me on who I am. It will provide me the comfort of knowing that my government (at least this part of their policy) agrees that I am who I say I am, that my being non-binary is valid. I don’t think governments should have authority over validating my gender, which is sort of the point, but as long as our IDs continue to list our “sex”, they will hold power over us, and our printed sexes matter. Non-binary people’s identities are contested, which is so exhausting, which leads to a lot of self-doubt. But being able to pull this card out and see the X will help, at least a little, to remind us that we are who we say we are. (Even if this is at odds with my view that government-mandated gender identities shouldn’t be a thing.)

the author's Alberta identification card. Circled in red is the word "sex" followed by the letter X.
Also, the new design has a dinosaur on it, an Albertosaurus!!! I’m honestly almost as excited about that as I am about the X.

But, that’s just how my X marker will affect me. What is far more interesting, I think, is what far-reaching effects this will have on creating further non-binary possibilities. And even more than that, I expect this change will expand the gendered “realm of possibility” for everybody. (Or at least everybody in Alberta or with Albertan IDs.) This concept has been guiding a lot of my thoughts about the new X marker, which I borrow from David Levithan’s novel, The Realm of Possibility.

“Here’s what I know about the realm of possibility β€”
it is always expanding, it is never what you think
it is. Everything around us was once deemed
impossible. From the airplane overhead to
the phones in our pockets. . . .
As hard as it is for us to see sometimes, we all exist
within the realm of possibility. Most of the limits
are of our own world’s devising. And yet,
every day we each do so many things
that were once impossible to us.”

David Levithan, The Realm of Possibility

(Side note: This is such a neat and wonderful book. It’s a collection of teen poetry, from 20 different fictional authors from the same high school. Levithan writes as 20 different writers, and paints each character not just by what they write, but also how they write, because each character’s poetry is very notably different in style and form.)

“We all exist within the realm of possibility,” and so when that realm changes for me, it can change for others too. Some of us are comfortable with the limits, and others are pressed up against the walls, pushing back and expanding the space. But regardless of where we are in the room, the walls mark the same limitations. Now, we most certainly each experience gender, and gender limitations in vastly different ways, not only based on our gender but also on our race, our class, where we live, etc. But the multifaceted social institution of gender exists and shapes our lives whether we want it to or not, even if we don’t see it all the time. Gender affects even people who identify as agender, such as myself, meaning I don’t particularly identify as having a gender at all. I can’t really opt out of gender, no matter how much I would like to.

One of the direct ways that the X will change gender for everybody is that it changes the meaning of F and the M. Before this change, having an F could be understood as the equivalent of “not M”, and M could be seen as “not F”. This model of gender can be seen in the way that men affirm their masculine identities by expressing repulsion towards feminine clothing, mannerisms, soap, etc. It’s also the basis for the “spectrum” model of gender, because any movement on the spectrum towards one gender is a movement away from the other, treating gender as a zero-sum calculation. (A similar concept is present in the word “non-binary”, because non-binary people are defined by what they are not: binary.)

Now, the F on an ID doesn’t just mean “not M,” it also means “not X”. An M means “I’m specifically male, not just not-female”. (Sorry to all the people who are telling detractors that “this doesn’t affect you”. It sort of does? Assuming they have Alberta ID documents, at least.)

Here I need to point something out: the policy and (loose) definition in Alberta for the X does not limit it to people who don’t identify as male or female. The X is definitely intended for non-binary people, but it’s also intended for people who do identify as male or female, whether trans or cis, but simply don’t want that printed on their ID, no explanation required. This is really important, for a couple reasons.

First, it means that people who are questioning their identity can request an X without having to be decided that they’re definitely non-binary. Having an X means “I’m gonna decide that for myself, thanks.”

Second, it means that having an X on an ID isn’t essentially a “queer marker”. My ID does not out me as queer in situations where that would be uncomfortable, or unsafe. This makes the X on my ID less stigmatizing.

A lot of advocates for non-binary possibilities for IDs advocate heavily for doing away with gender markers altogether, and I do too. I know I said above that having an X on my card can help affirm a contested identity, but the best way that governments can respect the validity of gender identities is by giving us total freedom over how to identify and represent ourselves. This doesn’t just mean giving people the option to erase the category from their documents, because if most documents have a gender printed, the ones that don’t will stand out, and be stigmatized. This is certainly something that trans people disagree on, sometimes vehemently, because some people will say that they struggled to get their gender markers, and that removing it would be erasive. But personally, I think that a far better situation would be not having to deal with government-regulated genders in the first place.

Still, the X is an important step in the expanding realm of possibility, especially because the newly expanded space is available to whoever wants it.

"I make this affidavit in support of ammending the sex indicator on my birth record (check only one)"
Seriously, the affidavit is so simple. You’re literally just pledging an oath that you want to change it. You don’t have to sign an oath that you’re “living full-time as the indicated gender” or anything weird like that.
Though, it would be more fun if it said “check all that apply.”

So, I strongly encourage everybody to consider asking for your “sex” to be listed as X the next time that your Alberta identity card needs to be renewed, and even to request a change to your birth certificate (though this requires a bit more commitment, because you don’t have to renew birth certificates, and doing so costs money.) If the only people getting X markers are non-binary people, our IDs will be highly stigmatized, but for every other person that gets the X, getting an X becomes less scary. Yes, this would mean that the X becomes almost meaningless, but that’s exactly what I think the goal should be, because that meaninglessness means the government holds less power over our genders, relinquishing more of that power to us.

So I am absolutely making the argument that good allies to non-binary people should request X gender markers (when available, of course.)

I’m not framing this as an ultimatum, even though writing it that way is tempting. You aren’t a “bad ally” just because you want to have an F or M. Frankly, X markers are going to cause friction against other identity management systems, when those systems don’t account for the X possibility. This is conflict that I am prepared for, because I am privileged enough to be comfortable dealing with that. It probably won’t happen a lot, but it’s certainly a possibility.

A large rectangular cake, with gorgeous rainbow icing around the edges, and a large X in black right in the middle.
They served this cake at the end of the event, decorated with a hilariously giant X in the middle. Also the rainbow icing was GORGEOUS.

Beyond being a good ally, do it for yourself. Asking for an X means that you get to define what that means for yourself. The wonderful thing about the choice of the letter X is that it clearly doesn’t actually stand for a word like M or F. (Sex: xenomorph? xylophone?) Being a man or a woman doesn’t mean you don’t get to have fun, and embracing the ambiguity of the X means that you’re embracing seeing gender as something other than a binary. (Obviously there are other ways of embracing that view of gender, but requesting the X is a decent, actionable method of doing that.) Gender is not a binary, but it’s not just a continuum either. Gender is a cacophony.

Because gender not being a binary doesn’t mean that the identities of man and woman are invalid, in the same way that green’s existence doesn’t mean black and white don’t exist. But expanding beyond the binary means that more people, binary or otherwise, will have the freedom to play with, and find joy in the genders. I think a lot about how Kate Bornstein explained this: “When gender is a binary, it’s a battlefield. When you get rid of the binary, gender becomes a playground.”

I am not pretending that the X option means that the strict gender binary is no longer the dominant gender paradigm in our society. My X won’t stop me from being excluded. The card can’t be used to summon genderless washrooms, and it won’t stop people from aggressively staring at me in public, or pointing and laughing with their friends. (Yes, that happens, and it’s not rare.) Also, Alberta is also only one part of the puzzle, so it’s important that other provinces in Canada and elsewhere follow suit. Like, I was born in B.C., so my birth certificate still hasn’t been able to change. But it does represent a crucial step in creating non-binary possibilities, and in case you haven’t heard, governments have power. (Surprise!) It’s easy to think that people should just live their lives however they want, dress and identify however they want, with no thought towards the letters printed on little pieces of plastic in their pockets. But those little letters have power, because gender is a powerful force in society that organizes our lives in so many ways.

My expectation is that X markers, an option in a growing number of places around the world, will cause us to slowly but surely see non-binary identities as more valid. I don’t know exactly how that’s going to happen, but I can’t wait to see it.

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