America is experiencing a binary sex transformation

The notion of binary sexes is undergoing a historic transformation in America. Not only are the traditional binary categories of either male or female experiencing significant change, but attitudes, practices and policies surrounding the classifications are also changing and impacting the nation. 

Two sexes have been traditionally recognized in the United States: male and female. Documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates, school registration and driver’s licenses, government records such as censuses, surveys, voting and military service and spaces such as public restrooms, hospitals and prisons have treated the sex of Americans as binary, a choice between either male or female.

In the first U.S. census in 1790, the enumerated population in the 13 states was categorized as male or female. While some hoped that the option would be modified in the most recent census, the government continued its 230-year practice of an individual’s sex being a binary choice in the 2020 census. The Census Bureau has also continued to publish its various tables by sex based on the biological attributes of men and women, not gender.  

Increasingly, Americans, especially in the scientific community, are recognizing that the binary choice of sex is overly simplistic and needs to be reconsidered with sex viewed as a spectrum. Also, 4 in 10 U.S. adults feel that forms and online profiles should include options other than man and woman. Among those below age 30 a slight majority are in favor of non-binary options.

Given this, the traditional binary categories are being modified across the country. In 2016, Oregon was the first state to recognize a non-binary identity, followed by California in 2017 allowing citizens to identify as non-binary on official documents.

In addition to Oregon and California, approximately 19 other states, including Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Utah and Washington, offer a third sex option on driver’s licenses. Also, many states have added a third option on birth certificates for those who don’t wish to be identified as male or female. The U.S. State Department offers a third option, “X”, on U.S. passports for non-binary, intersex, and gender non-conforming U.S. citizens. 

Popular social media platforms were early adopters of nonbinary options. For example, Facebook decided to move away from the traditional binary classification in 2014. Besides male or female, it permits U.S. users to choose among about 50 options, such as transgender, cisgender, intersex and neither. Facebook users can also choose their pronoun preferences: he/his, she/her, or the neutral they/their.

Growing numbers of American universities are making it easier for individuals to choose how they wish to be referred to by pronouns. Sharing one’s preferred pronouns when making introductions and registration is emerging as a trend across many colleges. Also, for non-binary individuals, online resources offer numerous pronoun options.

Human rights advocates in various states are petitioning lawmakers to allow identity documents to be more easily changed from the traditional binary categories. They contend that the binary classification of sex is discriminatory and the third sex option is a civil rights issue. 

Moving away from the binary classification, however, is not simple as it raises important questions. Among them are how the categories of sex should be redefined, how many choices should be offered and what specific labels or terminology should be used. 

In addition, modifying the traditional binary definition of sex pose challenges in many spheres of American daily life. Governments, businesses and socio-cultural institutions, as well as the public, are wrestling with challenges relating to employment, education, sports, gender equality, armed services, housing, public bathrooms, healthcare, language and communication.

Changes in the binary definition of sex have given rise to resistance, backlash and debate. Some religious groups, for example, have expressed objections as they believe there are only two sexes, male and female, that are determined at birth. 

Others oppose changing established traditions, laws, behaviors and language, especially the confusing usage of sex-neutral pronouns and new pronouns such as “ze.” In 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed to establish a legal definition of sex as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth. 

America is not the only country dealing with the binary sex classification. Other countries permitting a non-binary sex category include Argentina, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, India, Malta, New Zealand and Portugal.  

Various experts have also recommended changes in the traditional binary sex definition. For example, the 2019 report of independent experts to the United Nations General Assembly advised that such changes will contribute to inclusive societies enabling individuals who wish to live outside the binary categories of either male or female to enjoy protection from discrimination, harassment, threats and violence.

However, many countries are not willing to modify the definition. For example, Hungary has a law that would restrict children’s identity to their sex assigned at birth and Romania has a law prohibiting any discussion on “gender theory or opinion” in educational establishments.

Furthermore, virtually all national and international statistical tables and demographic measures utilize the binary sex measure. For example, United Nations demographic tables present population size, age structures, sex ratios, deaths and life expectancies using the binary measure of sex. 

In sum, America and the rest of the world are experiencing a transformation in the traditional sex categories that has raised many questions and issues that have yet to be resolved. Considerable support, as well as opposition, exists regarding the ongoing changes. Consequently, it will be some time before adjustments in the binary sex classification become the law of the land across America.

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”

Tags Gender Gender identity Gender neutrality Intersex rights Legal recognition of non-binary gender LGBT Non-binary gender Transgender

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