The “X” Factor: Oregon DMV Considering Third Gender Option for Driver's Licenses

By: Bridget Clerkin June 7, 2017
A proposal from the Oregon DMV would allow drivers to select a third gender on their licenses—a first-of-its-kind recommendation in the U.S.
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When answering an algebraic equation, we’re often asked to find the value of “X.”

The figure stands in for the unknown, a number that can only be identified by working out the problem.

But a new Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) proposal could reverse the process: Solving a problem by defining “X” first. And if the formula proves successful, it could add up to a lot of change across the nation.

M + F + X = ?

The character “X” has long had an air of mystery about it, culturally associated with hidden treasure or files on the paranormal.

But the Oregon measure, presented by the state’s DMV, would bring the letter from shades of grey to black and white, joining “X” with fellow letters “M” and “F” to signify a third gender option on the state’s driver’s licenses.

Legally, the letter would represent a non-binary identification. Oregon would be the first state to adopt such a designation, should the measure go through.

Like its enigmatic identifying letter, the term can be difficult to pin down. To many, “non-binary” simply represents anything outside of the “male/female” dichotomy, whether that identification be gender-free, more than one gender, or something different altogether.

In Oregon's proposal, X will stand in for a “sex that is not specified,” on driver's licenses.

In the Oregon proposal, X will stand in for a “sex that is not specified,” leaving open the opportunity for many to have a form of identification that they feel for the first time actually identifies them.

While specific numbers on the community are sparse, a 2015 report on transgender people in the U.S. stated nearly one-third of its 28,000 respondents identified as non-binary.

Another report on the total number of transgender people in the country—some of whom also identify as non-binary—estimated that there are 1.4 million transgender citizens in the United States, including 20,000 in Oregon alone.

And the measure has enjoyed widespread public support in the Beaver State as it’s made its way through several mandatory public comment sessions. If passed, it could go into effect as early as July.

But before Oregon can show its residents how to think outside of the binary box, it will have to teach that idea to its literal binary boxes—the computers used at the DMV and a number of other state offices.

Bending the Spoon

Gender identity is a sensitive topic and has often been a lightning rod issue in an era of potently polarized politics, but the biggest factors jeopardizing the measure’s passing in Oregon are not the Rs and Ds of the state’s legislature, but the 0s and 1s of its computers.

Updating Oregon’s technology to accommodate the change is a process that will take many months—and a lot of money, according to the DMV’s proposal.

The initiative earmarked $440,000 to revise the DMV’s record keeping system—which last saw major changes in the 1960s—as well as those for Oregon’s Department of Corrections, State Police, Fish and Wildlife Department, lottery office, Secretary of State, and a number of other offices.

Some supporters of the bill implored the DMV not to pass the initiative until after sorting out its impact on institutions like hospitals and health insurance companies.

All told, the update process would take an estimated 18 months for the police and 10 months for the Department of Corrections, according to the document.

And those figures don’t take into account other areas where the new official identification would need consideration, such as in the healthcare, housing, and insurance industries.

In fact, some supporters of the bill have implored the Department not to pass the initiative until after sorting out its impact on institutions like hospitals and health insurance companies.

A mismatch between the gender designated on an official state identification card and one found on insurance records, for example, could lead to delays in coverage, some residents argued at a public comment session for the measure.

While those issues are beyond the DMV’s technical purview, they do shed light on how far-reaching the move could be, should Oregon pass the bill.

Driving Forward

For its part, however, it seems the DMV is ready to adapt to the new designation. Still, the state agency has had some time to consider the issue.

It was first presented last year, after resident Jamie Shupe successfully petitioned a state court to change their—Shupe’s preferred pronoun—gender to non-binary.

The judgment was a landmark decision, making Shupe the country’s first legally non-binary citizen. But it tripped up the DMV, which had no way in its old system to honor the new designation when Shupe came in to change their license.

It was then that the agency was asked to figure out how to accommodate the request, a process culminating in the current proposal.

Since then, however, the idea of a non-binary option has gained more traction. A second citizen, Sara Kelly Keenan of Santa Cruz, California, was granted the official designation last September, followed by the introduction of SB 179, a piece of California legislation that would also add an option for non-binary designations on state licenses.

Adoption of the measure in either state—or both—could set a precedent for others to follow, and bring the nation one step closer to solving for “X.”

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