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How California Is Breaking Down the Gender Binary

California’s Gender Recognition Act: One Step Forward, Many More To Go

A new state law sets a blueprint for the rest of the nation.

California Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed the Gender Recognition Act, a hallmark piece of legislation that makes California the first state to legally recognize a third gender option on legal documents -- gender nonbinary.

California citizens can now change the gender on their birth certificates and licenses and even select a nonbinary gender on other government-issued legal documents. This legislation has significant implications for LGBTQ civil rights, inclusion, and overall mental health for the nonbinary community. We're now challenging gender norms, legally, and we're one step closer to true, visible change for the nonbinary community at large. But we still have a long way to go.

But what does nonbinary even mean? Before the law propelled nonbinary individuals into the spotlight, many people outside of the LGBTQ community (and even some within) were unfamiliar with this term, which describes individuals who may not identify with their sex assigned at birth, and many are also unaware of the frequent discrimination experienced by those in the non-binary community.

Not surprisingly, nonbinary people often experience something called "minority stress." Minority stress describes discriminatory acts like facing invasive questions or rude comments. But it can also include job loss, isolation, or homelessness, simply because of the way one identifies their gender. And the mental health implications are significant, with national data finding that more than 40 percent of transgender and nonbinary people have seriously considered suicide in their lifetime -- nearly nine times the U.S. average.

The Gender Recognition Act is a huge step forward, but it won't fix everything. This is just one step toward equality for those that live outside the binary. But nonbinary individuals across the globe still face discrimination from a variety of sources, including from binary gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals, who one might expect to be their closest allies. Public safety is also still a significant issue of concern.

This law is a huge development, but limited to just California, meaning nonbinary citizens cannot necessarily cross state lines and know they will still be supported, which can be stressful and create a sense of false or limited protection for those in this group. According to a 2017 report, 31 states have policies that facilitate a negative or low acceptance of gender identity other than that assigned at birth, so we certainly still have a long ways to go. But eventually we will see more impactful effects of the Gender Recognition Act and other laws like it. We're raising a younger generation who see and believe in a much higher level of acceptance -- especially for those who don't ascribe to a binary approach to gender.

So what's next? Ideally, other states will recognize California's efforts and follow suit -- working toward full inclusion across the United States as a whole. Some states already have similar, but slightly less far reaching laws. The District of Columbia and Oregon offer a gender-neutral choice on driver's licenses and identification cards, "X." To continue progress, allies have to take action. I encourage all citizens to speak up for the nonbinary community by urging lawmakers in their localities to continue the trend and recognize neighboring citizens who identify as gender-nonbinary.

Being an ally requires taking steps toward inclusiveness. We live in a diverse country made of different genders, ethnicities, ages, and preferences, all of which deserve respect and understanding regardless of our differences. Learning about the many gender pronouns that are available to us all today and using the appropriate pronouns for those who identify as each is a significant action to create an inclusive environment for nonbinary citizens. Allies need to speak up in the workplace as well. A small thing they can advocate for is gender-neutral bathrooms, something I'm proud to say my own workplace has adopted. I know my colleagues, regardless of their gender, can feel comfortable to use any restroom of their choosing.

As recently as 10 years ago, gender-neutral bathrooms would never have been discussed in my workplace, but society is moving toward acceptance and making small but significant changes to acknowledge the rights of nonbinary citizens. The government is slowly following society's lead. As allies and nonbinary citizens, we must continue to push for the legal recognition of nonbinary genders so the mental health and well-being of those in marginalized groups continues to improve.

JEREMY GOLDBACH is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

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Jeremy Goldbach