Massachusetts offers gender-neutral marker on driver's licenses, but some worry about discrimination
Genny Beemyn was speeding in Hadley, Massachusetts, when they noticed a cop car pulling them over.
Beemyn is nonbinary and had changed the gender marker on their driver’s license to an X, so they were initially nervous about the interaction.
“The officer…misgendered me, which was unfortunate, but that typically happens. But then as soon as he saw my license, apologized and corrected himself and asked what pronouns he should be using for me,” said Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center, a resource hub for LGBTQ students at UMass Amherst.
Beemyn said the officer was extremely supportive.
“I didn't get a ticket. That was great," they said. "And of course, relieved that the gender marker issue wasn't an issue.”
Three years ago, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation started to give residents the choice to use an X in place of male or female on their driver’s license or identification card. This came after a recommendation from the state’s LGBTQ+ Youth Commission and much debate in the Legislature.
Beemyn was one of the first people to get a gender-neutral marker on their license.
“To be seen as who I was and to be able to write on forms when they ask, quote unquote, what your legal sex is, then I can legally say it's an X because it's on my driver's license,” Beemyn said. "That, for me, was really important — to be able to identify and be identified as how I see myself."
But elsewhere on the UMass campus, Shay Olmstead said they felt differently.
“I have to move around to various places and it just feels risky,” Olmstead said.
Olmstead legally changed their name and are openly trans, but are grappling with choosing a gender marker that feels right to them.
“If I need to use a restroom and someone has a problem with it…an X marker doesn't give you the same sense of protection that an F marker might,” Olmstead said. “If someone wanted to say, ‘You don't belong [in this restroom],’ I could at least pull out a driver's license versus pulling down my pants, you know?”
So far this year, about 2,000 individuals opted for a gender neutral marker out of over one million people who got a driver’s license or state ID in Massachusetts, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
The number of people opting for gender-neutral markers has slightly increased each year since 2019, but is still less than 1% of the total number of licenses issued by the state.
Massachusetts state lawmakers like Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton were fighting to codify the recommendation into law last year. The bill passed for the second time in the Senate, but has yet to be voted on in the House this session.
Olmstead said it’s helpful Massachusetts has anti-discrimination laws for trans and nonbinary people, but believes it’s not enough for queer people to feel safe.
“It has also given me an appreciation for the role of the state and the complicated relationship that trans people have with the state,” Olmstead said. “There is an affirmation that can happen and there is also extreme discrimination that can happen. And, you know, there are two sides to the same coin.”
The discriminatory side of that coin is what’s stopped Mark Martinez from getting a gender-neutral marker on his license.
Martinez is a nonbinary, Black and Latino housing attorney in Boston. He’s also on the education fund board of directors for MassEquality, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization.
“Traveling and interactions with the police are two places where I don't want to draw any more attention to myself," Martinez said. “Those interactions are already kind of fraught with tension and with the idea that at any moment this could kind of go sideways, and having this gender X marker just for me seemed like an extra invitation for harassment — especially at the hands of the police.”
That’s a fear often considered by nonbinary people of color when deciding what to check for their gender at the RMV.
Martinez said having the gender-neutral option doesn’t just erase the institutional discrimination against queer people of color.
“Validation or recognition from the state has never been a thing that is important to us,” Martinez said, “largely because the state has been the thing for our entire history that has done the complete opposite and has invalidated us as queer people, as people of color. So I think the idea of having a legal state document say that we can do this or recognize that is not important to us.”
Martinez said Massachusetts prides itself on being the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, but questions what else has been done to solve issues in the LGBTQ community.
“LGBTQ youth are hugely disproportionately represented in [the unhoused] population,” Martinez said. “There are so many other issues at hand that, unless we tackle and solve, then we're not ever going to be creating a commonwealth where LGBTQ people actually get to exist free of harassment, trauma and pain.”
There are currently about two dozen states that offer gender-neutral marker options for residents to choose on their driver’s license, including all of New England, according to the Movement Advancement Project.
The U.S. State Department announced last year it was adding a third gender option for passport applications and renewals. The decision came after a lawsuit by a nonbinary Colorado resident who argued that it was impossible to get a passport that accurately reflected their gender identity.
Nori Teller-Elsberg, a 15-year-old in Vermont, recently had to update their passport. They’re agender, meaning they don’t identify as any gender. But Nori chose not to select a gender-neutral marker on the application, even though they agreed that would “fit them best.”
“I am really worried about being officially recorded for the federal government as a gender non-conforming person,” Nori said. “Because of a lot of things the government is doing wrong and then also not being sure of what's going to happen. Is a transphobe going to become the next president? Also with Roe vs. Wade, the fact that that was overturned showed me that the Supreme Court is willing to overturn things like it. And Clarence Thomas actually said that.”
Nori said it was difficult to choose a marker that doesn’t represent them.
“Even though the person who's checking your passport is not really important in your life, I still really cherish moments where I know that people view me as not a boy or a girl, because they're rare. It means like, ‘Hey, this stranger can understand.’ I can now connect with strangers in the sense that they know who I am for a second.”
And while not choosing a gender-neutral marker on their passport, Nori is thinking about getting an X on their driver’s license when they turn 18.
But that all depends, they said, on the attitude of acceptance from neighbors and government officials across the country.