Under legislation recently introduced in Sacramento, driver’s licenses and other state identifications could soon have a third gender option. In addition to using the letter M for male or F for female, the letters NB may be added to stand for people who are non-binary. Someone who doesn’t identify exclusively with either gender.
The push for this change started with Sara Keenan of Ben Lomond. Sitting in her office at her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, she flips through old photographs.
“Me standing in my family’s dining room in a party dress,” she says, pointing to a faded picture from her sixth birthday. “I’m smiling, but I’m miserable.”
Miserable because she looks like a girl but doesn’t feel like one. Her parents forced her to wear that dress as a condition of having a party.
Keenan was born with female genitalia, male genes and mixed reproductive organs. Back then, she’d be called a hermaphrodite, but today, the terminology is intersex. Her anatomy doesn’t fit the typical definitions of male or female. Still, she prefers feminine pronouns.
Her adoptive parents thought she was born a girl, so they raised her like one.
“I can remember being about 4 or 5 and knowing that I should be a boy and knowing that something was wrong,” she says.
Keenan then turns to another photo, one from when she was a teenager.
“That’s me in a library, and you can see I’m quite tall,” she says. “I’m wearing a bra because girls are supposed to wear bras when they’re 15, but there’s nothing really for the bra to hold up.”
When puberty hit, Keenan grew to 6 feet tall, but she didn’t develop breasts. Her parents took her to the doctors. After some tests, they found out she was intersex. Keenan had surgery, but they didn’t tell her it was to remove testicular tissue.
“My diagnosis was hidden from me. I wasn’t told. I was told that I was 100 percent girl,” she says.
Her parents told her that she was missing the chromosomes that make puberty happen. They lied.
So she continued to live life as a woman and married a man. It wasn’t until she was 48 that a doctor confirmed her the suspicions she’d had all along — she was intersex.
However, intersex traits aren’t that uncommon.
“Every single person on this earth has encountered an intersex person,” says Georgiann Davis, a sociologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is also intersex.
But, the government doesn’t track the number of people born with intersex traits, so there’s no solid data, only unreliable estimates. Those can range widely from 1 in 2,000 to 1 in 140,000, according to Davis.
Another problem is that parents and doctors historically have often responded to the presence of intersex traits in babies with surgery to align the child’s sex to male or female. It’s something Davis advocates against, but she says parents and doctors are starting to become more aware.
“It’s really today’s youth that are really pushing forward in challenging society to change their understanding of both sex, gender and even sexuality,” she says. “And of course, they’re standing on the shoulders of previous generations of people, both intersex activists and beyond.”
Activists like Keenan. Being intersex, she doesn’t fit the usual binary notions of male or female, so she doesn’t identify with either gender. Rather, she’s non-binary. For Keenan, knowing was liberating. But it also wasn’t enough. She wants people to recognize that there are more than two genders.
“Let’s invite society to acknowledge that we exist,” she says, “that people between male and female are naturally occurring members of our society who have every right to a legal designation that acknowledges their existence.”
Late last year, she became the first person in California and only the second person in the nation to have her gender legally changed to non-binary through a court order.
That ruling opened the door for state Sen. Toni Atkins of San Diego, who introduced a bill, SB 179, which would create this third gender designation on California driver’s licenses.
For now, Keenan, a retired paralegal, wants to continue helping others become legally recognized as non-binary through the courts too. And next, she plans to fight the federal government for a non-binary designation on passports.