Replacing 'sex' with 'gender'

Revolutionary law would allow people to identify their gender as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’

Elena Scotti

Ecuador is on the verge of passing a revolutionary law that would allow people to identify their gender with the adjectives “masculine” or “feminine” as an alternative to the traditional sex designations of “male” or “female.”

That may not sound like a meaningful distinction to those who fit neatly into the binary world of boy/girl, but for some people in the transgender community the ability to self-identify with an adjective rather than a noun is a victory that goes beyond parts of speech.

“In my case I don’t want to be recognized as a woman because I’m not a woman…I’m transsexual,” says Diane Rodríguez, president of the Ecuador’s Federation of LGBT Organizations.

Rodríguez says even though her sex was designated as male on her birth certificate, the new law would give her the right to proclaim her true gender identity as feminine on her state ID. “And that vindicates me as trans, because I’m trans.”

The issue of “sex” versus “gender” is not just semantics, Rodríguez insists. It’s about identity. Sex, she says, is about the biological characteristics you are born with or assigned at birth. Gender is about your social behavior and identity. Simply put, Rodríguez says, sex is private and gender is public.

“Gender is what people see and sex is what you have between your legs.”

- Diane Rodríguez

Ecuador’s law would be the first in the world to make that distinction. Citizens who want to stick with the traditional “sex” designation of male or female can do so. But those who’d rather identify their gender as masculine or feminine, can do that instead. Once the law is passed, Rodríguez says, Ecuador’s LGBT organizations will launch a campaign to convince all open-minded people to opt for the gender field on their state ID as a show of solidarity.

“Even my mom is going to do it,” Rodríguez said.

LGBT activists call for right to self-determine gender.

LGBT activists call for right to self-determine gender.

By letting people self-identify their gender, Ecuador will join a small group of nations that are on the leading edge of a new sexual revolution. In the Americas, only Colombia, Argentina and New York City allow people to self-identify their sex without a doctor’s note or proof of surgical treatment. Denmark, Italy, Ireland and Malta are the other countries that are hip with letting people define their own gender. Nepal, India, Australia and New Zealand provide a third-gender option on state IDs, but don’t allow self-determination without medical proof.

South America, however, is the only region showing a genuine groundswell in the direction of self-determination.

Sasha Buchert, a lawyer with the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, hails Ecuador’s bill as “groundbreaking and praiseworthy.” Shifting ID cards from sex to gender is important because “sex” has often been used as a way to disenfranchise transgender people and deny them ownership of their true identities, she says.

Ecuador’s law, Buchert says, would be a profound step towards “understanding the complexity of sexual identity in a much more nuanced way” and allowing people to “live their life faithfully and authentically with an ID that reflects who they are.”

“It shows again how South America, at least with the issue of self-determination, is leading the way forward,” she said.

Buchert hopes rights advocates in South America use their momentum to push for third gender options as well. “Why not have both? Self-determination and third-gender markers.”

But even without a third-gender designation, Ecuador’s use of the adjectives masculine and feminine “connotes a spectrum that some people are more comfortable with,” says Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund.

While some transgender people are perfectly comfortable identifying as male or female, the spectrums of masculine and feminine provide a broader option for gender identification, he says.

And anything that helps people self-identify in an accurate way is a good thing, Silverman says. “Without accurate ID it is difficult for people to participate fully in society, whether that means finding jobs, accessing benefits and services like healthcare, or finding housing.”

Ecuador’s new law wouldn’t solve all those problems of discrimination, but it would be an important step in the right direction.

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