Governments Don’t Understand ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender’

I ran into the following as I was filling out the application form for a Russian visa:

Do you notice anything wrong here?

Granted, it took me a while. On the webpage, there are a lot of these stacked on top of each other, and the “hints” are in a separate column, so they’re not immediately obvious. And I was so thrilled that I could mark “sex” as “female” (which I’ve only been able to do, and feel honest about, for five months) that I didn’t notice the “hint” until I was reviewing everything.

But there it was. On one side, “sex”; on the other, “Enter your gender.”

“Sex” and “gender” are NOT the same thing, people!

Now, before you start hating on the government of the Russian Federation, or blaming this all on Putin, let me assure you, I have NOT only found this mistake on websites from Russia. The reason that I decided to write about this in my column is that it reminded me of the sloppiness I saw while I was getting my official documents fixed in much more liberal places. Like California.

In California, they have some great new, very permissive laws that help with the recognition of gender, particularly non-binary genders. (You can now get a designation of “X” on your driver’s license.) The process for changing your gender on your official driver’s license or ID is this simple: on the form, there’s a question: how would you like your gender to appear? I picked “F”, obviously. And a week later, my license came in the mail. How did it appear?

Hmmmm… That isn’t what I filled out on the form. “SEX” AND “GENDER” ARE NOT THE SAME THING, PEOPLE!

For about half a year, I carried this around. But it made me uncomfortable. It made me feel like a liar, on something that I shouldn’t be lying on. (VERY different from the stupid roadblocks to my sex-change surgery that I DID lie about, outright, because they would have denied me medical care that was essential to my mental health.)

At the moment, my sex was not “F”. It wasn’t “M” either, because I had been on female hormones for several months, and I’d had facial feminization surgery. My top half was female; my bottom half was despicably male. The correct “sex” would have been “I”, for “intersex”.

Now, obviously, this wasn’t an option. It never is.[1] But, still, for a society that’s becoming more and more understanding about gender, this is a serious flaw.

Come on people! You were nice enough to ask my gender on the application form; now get it right when you print it. It’s not even like they’re writing “SEX” because it’s a shorter word. As you can see in the image, there’s clearly enough room to fit “GENDER” if they’d wanted.

With my passport, it was a different story. U.S. passports, like IDs, list “sex”, not “gender”. And to change your sex on a U.S. passport, you need a doctor’s letter stating that you’ve undergone “adequate medical treatment”. Otherwise you’re only eligible for a limited validity, two-year passport listing the sex that you want to become. (And “X” is NOT an option.)

Mostly, it seems fair to me. But in California, or in Oakland, at least, my psychologist wrote me this letter before I’d had the surgery. Which meant that I flew TO my sex change operation in India with a passport that listed my “sex” as already female. (Ironic? Yes. But I WAS glad for this once I’d had the operation, and I WAS female, continuing to travel with this until COVID-19 brought me back home.)

In my opinion, things like official IDs shouldn’t care about your biological sex, anyway. In hospitals, maybe it matters. On a card that you’re showing to the bloke at the door of the night club, it doesn’t. That person doesn’t care what you’ve got in your pants. They care what you look like, and how you present. Which, for me, was as a woman – despite the wrong anatomy.

The simple answer is to stop listing “sex” on IDs and passports. No one checking those needs to know your anatomy. List “gender”. Then, options like California’s actually help people in the transgender community, rather than make them feel awkward.

For the Russian visa application, it may have simply been an error in translation. I tried to research this: “sex” and “gender” in the Russian language, but I only found the word “пол”. For BOTH sex and gender. Maybe the language doesn’t make this distinction. Which would be a more fundamental error – an error in linguistics itself. Because there IS a difference, a big one! The English language, at least, is aware of this.

Now the speakers of English need to figure it out!

[1]          There was actually one U.S. form where “intersex” WAS an option. Unfortunately, I forget where I saw this, and I’d had my surgery by that point, so I didn’t mark it. But good for them.