There is some important movement in Quebec for trans rights: the Center for Gender Advocacy is suing the provincial government. One of the many points raised is mandatory gender assignation at birth and sex mention of identity documents, i.e. registration and publicity of gender. (I plugged my title in my first paragraph!)
Generally, if the government requests information to force it on your identity documents, it’s because it’s contextually taken as meaningful. The picture validates it’s your ID, the name provided gives a way to adress you (or it doesn’t, because it’s hard to change it, but that’s another issue). Other information serves other purposes — often discriminatory purposes. Date of birth is legitimate for some purposes because the law discriminates according to age (e.g. for buying alcohol or cigarettes, voting, etc.). More problematic were race and religion, which were also, at some point, registered and displayed on ID. The government took this as meaningful because religious or racial minorities faced heavy discrimination. When you create legal discrimination, after all, you must have a legal register of who should or should not be discriminated against. The most conspicuous example of this was Hitler’s Germany, which registered Aryans and non-Aryans using highly arbitrary criteria, same with religion, but it was not alone in registering this sort of information. The US did it, Canada too, etc. Early in the 20th century, racism was good form everywhere, and religion was often registered and publicly displayed on official documents.
The same applies to registration of gender: until recently, women faced important legal obstacles. Registering gender officially does the same as the other forms of identity registration: it creates a legal basis to know who should or shouldn’t be discriminated against. And it comes with a free gift: forcing the choice of gender at birth, which legitimizes gender assignment surgery on intersex newborn children, because yay, binary gender is better, etc.
Here, gender is thought as an unchanging and binary category. Although there are ways to change one’s gender, not only are they are far from obvious, but the overall system was thought without it. To give one example, here in Quebec, everyone has one long code for education purposes, called code permanent (“permanent code” — yeah, I didn’t really need to translate…), which implies it cannot be changed, that its components are permanent, just as the code itself. It looks like this: LLLF-DDGM-YYXX — 3 first letters of your last name (L), first letter of your first name (F), date of birth (DDMMYY) including a gender marker (G) — 50 is added to the month for “Female” — and two random numbers (XX). (e.g., Bob Ryan, man, born May 5, 1986: RYAB 0505 8632; Catherine Tremblay, woman, born June 12, 1991: TREC 1256 9123). Remember, this is stated to be permanent. The ideology behind it states that no one should be able to change their name or (binary) gender. By the way, it is displayed on pretty much all documents from educational institutions, so all my student cards, past and present, state my gender. So do report cards, bills, letters from the dean congratulating my good grades, etc. It’s everywhere.
However, display of gender markers on official documents is related to another issue: the fact that gender is thought to be public, not private. People take it for granted that gender is clearly provided for every single individual, either from biology (because many people assume gender and sex are the same thing) or gender expression (which is similarly offensive). This is one reason why most names are gendered: it allows an easy way to know where the person in front of you stands in the binary. The assumption that gender is obvious is why even people who know nothing about trans* issues feel that it’s offensive to ask someone’s gender, and will feel offended if asked. (Trans ally tip: Indeed it is. Ask for pronouns, not gender.)
Relatedly (and as a result), daily social interaction rely on gender. I already addressed the fact that terms of address are mandatorily gendered in another article, but language is problematic way beyond that. Terms of address are easily changed — as in Russian, where товарищ (comrade) became the standard term of address after the Russian Revolution –, but gender is often encrypted in the very grammar of the language. In all Indo-European languages (AFAIK), gender is a mandatory grammatical category: at least in some situations, you have to state someone’s gender in order to follow the language’s basic grammar. I’ll give a few examples from the languages I know. First, English, which is less problematic than other languages: the problem arises only in some nouns (king/queen, actor/actress, etc.) and in the third person (he/she, him/her, his/her). In French, however, virtually all nouns and adjectives are written differently by adding a final -e or a more complex suffix, and may be pronounced differently as well depending on context. They also require a different article. German, Spanish and Italian also differentiate gender in nouns with articles and suffix, but the difference is always both written and pronounced. And so on. The result of this is that if you want to say that someone is beautiful, for example, you will have to state what gender they are at the same time (fr. “beau/belle”, es. “hermoso/a”, it. “bello/a”; ge. “schön” has different marked endings depending on case). This only makes sense if gender identity is assumed to be outwardly displayed and visible, given as a public information, not an inner, private feeling.
Which is to say it makes none.
Now, apart from the theory, some concrete issues with gender registration and publicity. Mandatory gender registration means the state — and only the state — has the legal right to determine someone’s gender. As a result, it creates a mismatch, on official documents, between someone’s gender expression and their legal gender, which creates huge obstacle for trans* people who have to choose between being denied their identity and/or services or doing whatever the government wants. At the moment, this means medical procedures, amongst other things. Also, it forces doctors and parents to choose a category at birth, with the result that many intersex children go through surgery soon after birth to put them in either category.
There are valid reasons to know people’s gender at large: using the information to fight inequities. Basically, this means using the information for statistical differences between people from different genders, or else implementing positive measures to help marginalized groups access the workplace, etc. However, there are two main issues here. First, this sort of purpose does not require the information to be published on every piece of ID. It doesn’t even need the information to be registered at all. We know people of colour are oppressed and we can study that, yet we don’t need to have a racial marker on our driving licenses for that. Second, the way it is implemented at the moment does not reflect the reality of gender inequities. Right now, there are only two options, M and F, which allows to control male-female inequities, but even at that, it is very imprecise. What does it measure? Say, if your study on sexism controls for gender in this manner, do you know who are your women, for example? Some will be trans women, others will be pre-transition/transitioning trans men, still more will be FAAB (or even MAAB) genderqueer, and you may even have genderfluid people who, as they answered the question, felt more female than male. And that’s not even counting the issue of gender expression, which is meaningful in how even cis women experience sexism. With a binary gender question, do you really know what you’re measuring? Not only is asking gender in a binary mode offensive for trans* people — it is methodologically wrong. It’s not an impossible problem. In fact, there are ways to solve this.
I think the main issue is one of education. People widely assume that gender should be known and don’t know the implications of public display and registration. I know this is perhaps optimistic, but I have some hope that good-willing people will understand. I experienced this when I talked to a local prospective MP in my constituency (as it happens, she wasn’t elected), whom I interviewed to discuss trans* issues. She didn’t know much about them — trans* people were just blobed into the general LGBT umbrella and our issues were assumed to be the same as LGB people –, but when I explained, it went well. On the issue of gender markers, we went from “We must know someone’s gender for medical purposes” to “We should think about this” to “Maybe it’s not necessary in some instances”.
Oh, and because I mentionned it: “medical purposes” do not apply here. For most medical purposes, trans people are exactly the same as cis people, and men are the same as women. If I broke my arm, you probably don’t need to know if it’s a male or female bone. Trans* people do need to take medication every day, but so do most people in a hospital. And in the few instances where sex makes a difference, gender markers won’t always help with trans* people. Even in the easy cases, i.e. transsexual people, matters are not always clear. For example, a trans man may need to see a gynecologist (phalloplasty being what it is), like cis women, and may want medication to treat his receding hairline, like cis men. Trans women will need to check for breast cancer or (after surgery) see a gynecologist, like cis women, but their methods of contraception will never be the same: either the same as men or none at all.
Anyway, I think my point is made: No, there is no point for a central registry of gender. And there is even less point in what it involves now — the public display of binary gender taken as permanent.