Ella is a 16-year-old with a learner’s permit, living in the Boston suburbs.
Ella has been putting in hours on the road, working toward getting a driver’s license. But first Ella wants to make sure that license reflects who they really are.
“I use they/them pronouns. ...I don't feel male, and I don't I definitely don't feel female,” they said. “So then I settled on the term non-binary.”
Ella asked us not to use their last name for safety reasons. Last year, as a freshman in high school, Ella came out as non-binary, which means neither male nor female.
Hundreds of societies around the globe recognize more than two genders, using terms like non-binary, gender-fluid, bigender and agender. Some, but not all, identify as transgender.
Currently, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation only recognizes two genders, which means when Ella goes to the RMV for their new license, they won’t have an option that fits their identity.
Ella did some digging and discovered that a third gender option already was being recognized in a handful of places: Oregon, California, the state of Washington, Washington, D.C., and Maine.
“I saw that Oregon had passed a bill and was now offering not only intersex identification on their birth certificates but an X for nonbinary on their licenses,” Ella said. “And I was like, ‘Hmm, does Massachusetts have that?’”
Ella wrote a letter to their representative, state Sen. Karen Spilka, to explain their anxiety about the upcoming driver’s license application and to ask if there was another way.
“As soon as I finished reading the letter I dialed Ella on my cellphone,” Spilka said. “I was very excited, very concerned though as well, and upset that somebody would feel so conflicted. I never thought of that aspect of it. And Ella just opened up my eyes to a whole different dimension of gender identity.”
Spilka met with Ella and drafted a bill to allow a third gender option, known as Gender X, on driver's licenses and state ID cards.
The Massachusetts Senate will vote on the bill Thursday.
So far Spilka said she’s heard very little opposition, but there has been some pushback online, in the form of negative Facebook comments.
Ella said some of that pushback comes from fear of people who fall outside the male or female gender binary.
“There is this idea in the public and in the media that trans people pose a threat to society ... even just being in a public space,” Ella said.
In 2017, advocates tracked at least 28 deaths of transgender people in the United States due to violence, the most ever recorded, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Massachusetts State Police told WGBH News that the agency plans to comply with any law put out in the legislature. The federal Department of Homeland Security would not comment, beyond saying it was up to the states.
And most of the pushback hasn’t really been about safety, according to Spilka, who said people wonder why she’s doing this in the first place.
“[People ask] why am I spending time working on this,” Spilka said. “There's so many other things … And my response to people is, there's enough time in the day to meet everybody's needs.”
Even if the Senate bill doesn’t go through, the third gender option is scheduled to become a reality in the next few months, according to a statement provided to WGBH News from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (Mass DOT).
The option has already been built into the RMV’s new database system, and the Mass DOT has reached out to organizations like the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition to collaborate on training and preparation in advance of the rollout within the next few months, according to MTPC Executive Director Mason Dunn.
“The legislative piece just solidifies that it can happen. But the RMV has been actually working on making this reality for about a year now,” Dunn said. “I had been knocking on their door about this for a while, but then about a year ago they finally came to us and said we're at a place where we can actually make this a reality.”
By 2020, unless you’re using a federal passport, everyone in Massachusetts will have to get a new ID card if they want to travel by plane or enter government buildings, thanks to the federal rollout of the REAL ID Act.
This act was created to implement stricter standards on licenses and IDs, and it never specified that gender markers must be male or female — that part is up to the states, which creates an opening for Gender X.
Spilka’s bill would simply codify the new RMV policy into law. For nonbinary people like Ella, it could be a huge step toward validating their identity.
“I think a lot of it is about representation,” Ella said. “Understanding that transgender people exist and acknowledging that ... they belong in the state.”
Spilka’s bill is up for a vote this week in the Senate, and will then head to the House.
Adam Reilly contributed reporting to this piece.