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How A Suburban Teenager Sparked A Push For A Gender-Neutral State ID Option

Ella is 16 years old, lives in a suburb west of Boston, and is about to be a high school junior. Ella's also about to get a driver’s license — but as things stand right now, that ID won't reflect their own deeply felt sense of identity.

"I started by coming out as lesbian," Ella explained recently. "I was still very confused, but I was tired of holding in some of the feelings, so I ended up settling on that term. ... And then things kind of transitioned into gender confusion.

"I ended up getting really down on myself and depressed, but then I ultimately, with the help of my family, came out of that," Ella added. "I don’t feel male, and I definitely don’t feel female, so then I settled on the term non-binary."

"As of right now, where I feel most secure, I would say: 'My name’s Ella, and I’m a non-binary, pan-sexual person.'"

In other words, Ella doesn't identify as either male or female. But right now, those are the only choices available to someone applying for a Massachusetts driver’s license.

Last year, while doing some research on other states that offer a gender-neutral ID option, Ella decided to contact their state senator.

"I spent the whole day just researching this one topic of licenses, going into California, Massachusetts. Maine recently passed [it]. Vermont’s looking into it, [Washington] D.C.," Ella said. "So I kind of learned everything I could, and then on a whim I ended up writing this letter in the span of an hour. ... I heard back within two days."

The recipient of that letter was State Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), who represents Ella and is in line to become the next president of the Massachusetts State Senate.

"They were getting prepared to get their license, and it was a day that was creating anxiety instead of celebration," Spilka recalled.

"Getting somebody’s license should be a rite of passage. It should be a day that everyone gets excited about and looks forward to, not feels conflicted about," Spilka added. "[The letter] was just so descriptive, and so beautifully written, that I wanted to respond immediately."

This week, Ella’s impromptu lobbying and follow-up meeting with Spilka may pay off on Beacon Hill. On Thursday, the State Senate is scheduled to debate a bill filed by Spilka that would create a third option, “X,” on state IDs for people who, like Ella, don't identify as male or female.

At the moment, Spilka said, the prospects of that bill becoming law seem good.

"I personally have not heard of any opposition [in the State House], so I do believe there’s tremendous support," Spilka said. "There’s no reason not to support this."

Not everyone agrees. When Spilka introduced this legislation last year, the Massachusetts Family Institute expressed its disapproval, saying driver's licenses and other state-issued IDs are "intended to reflect objective facts" and "not designed to be tools for the fulfillment of someone's sexual expression."

Spilka, for her part, acknowledges receiving a small number of negative comments on Facebook about the pending legislation.

"It was basically, 'Why am I spending time working on this? There's so many other things,'" Spilka said. "And my response to people is, 'There's enough time in the day to meet everybody's needs. That's part of my job as a state legislator, a state senator.'"

Before Thursday's debate, Ella will join Spilka and other supporters of the bill for a press conference. They have some trepidation about shifting from behind-the-scenes advocacy to a more public approach.

"It's daunting," Ella said. "Being a minor, especially being trans, there’s this idea in the public and the media that trans people pose a threat to society."

But ultimately, Ella added, the chance they’ve been given is too valuable to pass up.

"Often, non-binary representation is slim to none." Ella said. "We don’t have a lot of say in how laws are made. ... So I think a lot of it is about representation. Understanding that transgender people exist, and acknowledging that, and that they belong in this state."

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