On March 20 a White House petition was launched asking the U.S. government to consider one thing: Recognize non-binary genders and give citizens who don't fit in the male or female categories a new, legal status.
"Legal documents in the United States only recognize 'male' and 'female' as genders," the petition says, "leaving anyone who does not identify as one of these two genders with no option."
So far, more than 89,000 people have signed and supported the petition online. It needs 11,000 more signatures before the Obama administration will be required to respond to the matter.
But even if the petition does reach the 100,000-mark, it's unlikely the government will be changing its gender policies anytime soon. This doesn't mean the discussion should stop, however. Recently, inititatives like this petition and Facebook's 50 new gender options for its users have raised questions about the treatment of people who feel they don't fit in the male-female gender binary. Do we ignore them? Or do we try to find a way to achieve a legal and social solution? This would mean a significant, if not radical change for Americans, including the nearly 700,000 transgender citizens living in the U.S.
Although several states include laws that clearly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, the U.S. government still does not allow for a third, non-specific gender option on legal documents.
Instead it has been other countries, particularly in Asia, who have taken the lead on this issue over the past six years. A week ago, an Australian court ruled that the government should recognize a third, neutral and non-specific gender besides the traditional "male" and "female" categories. The decision was a win for Norrie, an Australian who doesn't identitify as male or female, and who had originally applied for a non-specific gender status. With this landmark ruling, Australia also became the world's sixth country to recognize a third gender option for its citizens. The first to do so on its census forms was Nepal, following a 2007 decision. In total, seven countries now offer an alternative option on their legal documents, even though several of them are far more culturally conservative than the U.S.
It begs the question: Why hasn't the U.S. followed suit?
Following a Supreme Court landmark decision ruling against gender identity discrimination in 2007, Nepal is believed to have become the world's first country to include a third gender option on its census forms, which it initiated in 2011. The country has led the way in South Asia, also introducing a third gender category on its passports last year.
India has long recognized a community of five to six millions Indians as "hijras," citizens who don't identify themselves as either male or female. For years all such Indians were grouped together broadly under the term "eunuchs," despite the fact that only 10% of them identified as such.
However, this changed in 2009, when the nation's election authorities decided to formally allow an independent designation for intersex or transgender voters. The move meant that Indians could choose an "other" category indicating their gender in voter forms.
In 2009 the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the government to conduct a census of hijras living in the country. Earlier that year, local police had allegedly attacked, robbed and raped eight hijra wedding dancers near Islamabad. That traumatic event led Muhammed Aslam Khaki, a lawyer specializing in Islamic law, to file a private case in the country's Supreme Court, asking to recognize hijras as a third gender. At the end of 2009 the chief justice of Pakistan ordered the National Database and Registration Authority to issue national identity cards with a "third gender" category for non-binary citizens.
At least 10,000 hijras currently live in Bangladesh, according to national statistics. They have had the right to vote since 2009, but it wasn't until the end of last year that their gender identity was given a legal status. In November 2013 the government announced the recognition of "hijra" as a third gender category in all national documents and passports. The prime minister herself, Sheikh Hasina, announced the decision. Hasina's Cabinet secretary, Muhammad Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan, recognized the difficult situation faced by hijras in Bangladesh as well, noting the community was "being denied their rights in various sectors, including education, health and housing because of being a marginal group."
Last November Germany became the first European country to officially recognize a "third gender" category, this time on birth certificates for intersex infants. If their children show both male and female characteristics, parents can now mark their birth certificates with an "X," for undetermined gender.
The law gives the possibility for intersex children (as many as 1 in 2,000 babies) to decide their gender identity once they reach an adult age, and not to be labeled male or female at birth without their will. Until now, parents had only one week to register their intersex baby as a boy or a girl, which often led to forced surgery on the child's genitalia.
New Zealand gave its transgender citizens a new gender category on their passports in 2012, with the introduction of "X" for "undetermined or unspecified." Transgender New Zealanders can now change their gender category to "X" on their passports with a simple declaration.
A Family Court declaration is still required if citizens want to change their gender identity from male to female, and vice versa, on citizenship documents.
On April 2 Australia ruled that people are not unambiguously male or female, allowing a third gender under the law. The ruling was a landmark decision and a victory for main plaintiff Norrie, who had fought for the third gender designation for years. Identified as male at birth, Norrie asked to be registered as having a "non-specific" gender in 2010. The New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages first supported Norrie's application, then revoked it. Norrie appealed the registry's decision and was given reason, three years later, last week, essentially affirming Norrie's and the greater Australian transgender community's legal status. (Since 2011 this option has been available on passports; however, the category was known as "indeterminate.")