In 2003, Alex MacFarlane quietly became the first person in the country to obtain a passport with neither an M or an F in the sex field. Almost 50 at the time, they had spent much of their adult life pushing to obtain an X there instead, demarcating indeterminate, intersex, and/or unspecified.
Ten years later, in a move that Professor Gillian Triggs called “profoundly significant”, the federal government introduced the “Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender”, a publication that built on progress made in the decade prior and mandated that all federal institutions comply with standards of terminology, privacy, and care.
Commencing on July 1, 2013, the guidelines stipulated that all departments and agencies were expected to comply within three years, but as July 1 2016 passed, it became increasingly clear that many had failed to meet the deadline. I had heard of friends slipping through cracks in these systems with little fanfare, so asked several people who are navigating these systems to speak with me about their experiences.
Vern*, born in New South Wales, considered almost every interaction they’ve had a “campaign of bureaucratic frustration”. While federal guidelines exist in Australia, what you are able to change — and when you can change it — varies from state to state, with NSW’s guidelines remaining rather regressive. During numerous appointments with Medicare, they have had multiple staff called over to puzzle at the paperwork Vern has handed over, with no idea how to enter it into their systems. Some staff even said they’d “never seen one of these forms before”.
In lieu of an option that fit them, Vern was able to have their gender at Medicare updated from F to M, but this presents its own range of problems. For as long as X has been written on forms, it has legally recognised a gender that is by definition not male or female, a definition further enshrined in 2013. The substitution of X with another option is not only a discriminatory act, but legally fraught.
Stevie mentioned this problem, saying it bothered them “not just on a person identity level, but am I also committing fraud?”. MacFarlane noted similar concerns in 2003, saying they didn’t want to change the world, but that they “should not have to commit fraud because of a department’s production inadequacies”.
Born in New Zealand, Stevie saw a form that reflected their gender for the first time, last year, on a police background check. But when flying in from overseas, they found themselves held up at an automatic entry gate because, despite Border Control’s standards allowing for the use of X markers, the technology had not been updated. Mordantly, finding a solution to their gender not being recognised resulted in almost constant misgendering from the staff who, if trained, retained none of the tact.
Laurie, also born in NSW, received an apology from the ATO that their systems hadn’t been updated for the 2016 deadline, and was told they’d be updated by January 1 2017, instead. Calling again in the new year, they found out this had simply never been the case. They, too, expressed frustration “because people make out like it’s not possible, but what they’re saying is it’s not a priority, and that’s the bit that hurts — not being important, or worthwhile, to those people”. They’re still trying to update their information.
When we spoke, Stevie noted that young people today eschew binary gender more than ever before, and were confused that organisations aren’t going out of their way to change the processes. X markers are the rarest they may ever be. “They’re putting off the backlash when they could be doing it now,” they said, “and avoiding a whole lot of pain”.
Regardless, it is inherently a matter of discrimination. With even the Australian Defence Force pushing to bar non-binary people only last year citing “administrative difficulties“, we are on the cusp of a national conversation around what anti-discrimination measures are considered “reasonable” to accommodate — a conversation missing the voices of those who are currently experiencing harm because of it.
*Some names in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.