Are South Africans ready for gender-neutral birth certificates?

A mother holds her baby in a gender-neutral grower
A mother holds her baby in a gender-neutral grower

Did you know that gender neutral birth certificates are allowed in several countries?

In the U.S., adults in some states can now request to amend their birth certificates to reflect ‘X. 

This third gender option is defined as “A gender that is not exclusively male or female, including, but not limited to, intersex, agender, amalgagender, androgynous, bigender, demigender, female-to-male, genderfluid, genderqueer, male-to-female, neutrois, nonbinary, pangender, third sex, transgender, transsexual, Two Spirit, and unspecified.”

READ MORE: Genderqueer, trans or pansexual - what does it all mean?

Some celebs are already and have been raising their kids to choose their own ways of gender expression:
Will and Jada Pinkett Smith were comfortable with allowing their kids to shun gender norms
Pink says they are ‘a very label-less household’
Bryce Dallas Howard let her daughter lead her in her choices
In Canada, Ontarians can select gender-neutral options for drivers' licenses and health cards, but not yet for birth certificates. According to CNN, there has been a case where a baby was issued a health document that didn't specify male or female.

Newfoundland and Labrador are introducing legislation that will allow people aged 12 and older to choose an “X” on their birth certificate. 

Australians are currently debating the matter at government level where “calls have been made to include either another category of sex, to allow individuals to self-identify their sex or gender when registering a life event, or to choose their sex or gender from a range of additional categories of sex, such as non-binary, unspecified, non-specific, indeterminate or intersex.” 

Their opposition party leader has called the suggestion "political correctness gone mad". 

READ MORE: South Africa's new wave of daring portraiture

In South Africa there is no option to reflect no gender, or a third gender, on a birth certificate, and parents and doctors must select one of the two options for their child at birth.  

We have just two options: male or female. Before 2003, it was not possible at all to change the gender marker reflected in a South African ID book, from one to the other. After lobbying by activists, the law was amended and now individuals may apply to the Director-General of the National Department of Home Affairs for the alteration of the sex description on their birth register. 

Here, the non-binary movement is gaining momentum. Local modelling agency My Friend Ned made headlines when they introduced their casting list of exclusively non-binary models – a first in South Africa – and non-binary individuals are being featured in magazines and on runways more and more often. 

Estian Smit, a Cape Town based trans human rights activist, told us that in the South African context, the removal of all gender markers or the addition of a gender neutral option would require law reform, which in turn requires a significant amount of awareness raising, advocacy and lobbying, and potentially strategic litigation. 

“Reform of South African gender recognition legislation is long overdue, given that we had already asked for self-identification in 2003,” Smit said. “In delaying such law reform, the South African government, and particularly the Department of Home Affairs, not only directly violates our rights to gender identity, gender expression and bodily integrity, which are protected by the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution, but also continues to make trans, gender diverse and intersex persons vulnerable to a wide range of human rights violations on a daily basis.” 

READ MORE: How do you treat a trans co-worker? Hint: just like any other co-worker

Smit stresses that it would be best to have no gender markers at all on birth certificates and identity documents. “The state should not capture gender as an aspect of a person's legal identity as a citizen” they told us. “In other words, the state should completely remove gender markers from all identity documents - similar to the way in which apartheid race classifications were removed from South African identity documents after democracy.”

“No longer enforcing legal gender categories does not mean that it becomes impossible to address gender inequalities in society. South Africa continues to take measures to address apartheid legacies of race inequalities without enforcing race as a category in citizen's legal identities. This can also be done in the case of gender,” Smit explained. 

All three categories (f, m, x) will need to be available to any person on the basis of self-identification, they said, and the gender-neutral option should not be assumed to automatically apply to trans, gender diverse and intersex persons, as many may identify as female or male, and not necessarily as gender neutral.

Senior Family Physician at the Heideveld Community Day Centre, Dr Elma de Vries, told us that there is a lot of ignorance about gender non-conformity, trans persons and intersex (variations in sexual development) in South Africa. “To get any law changed takes years because it has to go through so many processes - so red tape is part of it. Just think for example how long activists have called for decriminalisation of sex work. Despite strong arguments for it, it has still not changed,” she said. 

Dr de Vries is a member of the Transgender Clinic Team at Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, and serves as Vice-Chairperson of the GenderDynamix board. She says a gender neutral birth certificate would be fantastic, but she suspects “this may take a long time to happen in South Africa.” 

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