Malta is the latest country to allow trans and nonbinary individuals a third option on their passports and legal documents, signified by a neutral “X.”
In a Monday press conference, Minister for European Affairs and Equality Helena Dalli claims that the addition is a sign that LGBTQ citizens will no longer be treated like “second-class citizens” in the majority Catholic country. Instead the Maltese government, Dalli says, will recognize “whoever you want to be.”
“No legislature should impose their views on an individual’s right to choose,” Dalli continues.
Although Malta still officially recognizes the existence of two genders, what this change allows is for trans people to not identify their gender on official documentation. Although the term “transgender” is widely viewed as the transition from one gender to another, many people within the wider trans umbrella fall along a spectrum of gender expression. These individuals may feel neither male nor female, a phenomenon signified by terms like “agender, “genderqueer,” or “neutrois.”
There’s little research from Malta on the subject, but a survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) found that 35 percent of the U.S. trans population identifies as neither of the two most widely recognized genders.
Arli Christian, policy counsel for NCTE, claims that updating the policies on trans documentation serves an important purpose for this large subsection of the LGBTQ community. These guidelines, he tells INTO in an email, help to “ensure that non-binary individuals have better access to accurate IDs for use in their daily lives.”
Transgender Law Center executive director Kris Hayashi adds that having consistent paperwork which matches an individual’s gender identity can help prevent the daily discrimination faced by trans people.
“We’re asked for identification everywhere from banks and bars to airports,” Hayashi says in a statement to INTO. “It can be difficult and even dangerous for nonbinary and transgender people to navigate life with an ID that doesn’t reflect who they truly are, opening people up to invasive questions, harassment, and sometimes violence.”
Although affirming identification isn’t a panacea against bigotry, the existing research backs up this assertion. In a 2015 poll of more than 27,000 trans people living in the U.S., the NCTE found that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of respondents didn’t have their documents fully updated. Of this group, nearly a third (32 percent) claimed that they had experienced discrimination or abuse as a result.
A 2015 case from the U.S. exemplified how dangerous it can be for trans people to have paperwork that doesn’t align with their sense of selfor their outward appearance.
Shadi Petosky, a writer and cartoonist, was detained by TSA officials at the Orlando International Airport after the body scanners detected an “anomaly” in her anatomy. Although the 42-year-old explained that she’s transgender, Petosky claims that she was detained for 40 minutes while officers debated policymissing her flight. The TSA subsequently stood by its conduct.
To prevent this maltreatment, selected municipalities in the U.S. have begun to update their trans documentation guidelines in recent years.
Oregon and Washington D.C. already allow trans people to identify themselves with a neutral “X,” and the state of California moved closer to recognizing non-binary identities when a bill to allow a third-gender option on identification passed its Senate this year.
Although Canada isto datethe only country in North America to officially recognize neutral gender markers, numerous nations have long blazed that trail. Countries like Australia, India, Ireland, Nepal, New Zealand, and Pakistan allow for a separate option outside of the male and female boxes. In Germany, all official documentation is gender-neutral.
Malta, meanwhile, made waves in 2015 with a historic gender recognition bill that allowed trans people to update their birth certificate without proof or surgery.
The once-conservative nation has become a leader in LGBTQ rights in the years since. Malta, which currently ranks in first place on ILGA’s 2017 survey of the most queer-affirming nations, became the first European country to outlaw conversion therapy in 2016. A year later, the country’s parliament passed same-sex unions by a near-unanimous vote. Just one legislator voted against.
The July vote was a strong statement from a country where divorce was illegal until 2011.
But LGBTQ advocates warn that even with the new policies in place, trans people will continue to be targeted for discrimination. When Canada passed its nonbinary law in August, Toronto attorney Adrienne Smith told Global News that the “X” marker could serve to out LGBTQ people in countries where it’s still unsafe to be open about one’s identity.
“I’m really worried that in countries like Uganda and Jamaica, where being LGBTQ is illegal and there are laws on the books that prosecute people for identifying as trans, that this could leave people open to arbitrary detention,” Smith said at the time.
Dalli, however, recognizes that more work must be done to ensure the safety of LGBTQ people.
“We feel this is another important step towards giving people rights and obligations, irrespective of how they were born,” she claims, noting that the country’s legislature has convened for less than 100 days.
To receive updated paperwork, trans people must present a notarized statement to Identity Malta, the government office which handles passports, visas, and other identity documents. Parliamentary Secretary for Reform Julia Portelli Farrugia claims that the process shouldn’t take any longer than other requests.