Canadians will soon have a third option to identify their gender on passports under new rules that will come into effect by the end of the month.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said he was making the change so all Canadians can feel safe to be themselves and express their gender as they choose.

"By introducing an 'X' gender designation in our government-issued documents, we are taking an important step towards advancing equality for all Canadians regardless of gender identity or expression," Hussen said in a statement.

Beginning Aug. 31, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) will introduce an interim measure to allow people to identify themselves as having a gender that is unspecified.

The federal government did not say what the interim measures would include, but did explain that they will only be in place until the government can print documents with an X instead of an M for male or F for female.

A sex field is mandatory for travel documents under International Civil Aviation Organization rules. ICAO allows one of three markers: F for female, M for male or X for "unspecified."

Sex traditionally refers to a male or female, based on biological or physical anatomy such as genitalia, while gender refers to how a person identifies personally and in society. The change announced by Hussen will allow Canadian passport holders, including transgender travellers and those who do not identify as male or female, to check off an X box.

If travelling to a country that doesn't treat transgender people equally under the law, it remains up to the traveller to review the federal government-issued travel advisories for that region before leaving Canada. 

Australia, Denmark, Germany, Malta, New Zealand and Pakistan currently allow for the use of an X category. India, Ireland and Nepal are among the countries that provide a third-option category.

'It's progress'

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told a Senate committee in May that the federal government would be updating its gender identity policies across federal departments.

IRCC already removed a requirement for proof of sex reassignment surgery for persons requesting to change the sex marker on documents issued by that department.

The change has been applauded by some transgender Canadians who say it is a move in the right direction.

"I'm thrilled, it's a step forward for our society. It's progress," said Laura Budd, who plans to switch her sex marker to an X soon.

Budd explains that she was designated as male at birth but identifies as a woman, and says hiding that identity since she was a child has caused her to experience guilt, shame and depression.

Laura Budd

Laura Budd says she is thrilled by the move. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Joshua Ferguson, who identifies as a non-binary transgender person, which means their identity is neither male nor female, also welcomes the move.

"I think this is definitely a positive step in the right direction," they said, adding they will be the first in line to apply for the designation despite questions they have about how such a move could be implemented.

Ferguson recently applied to have their Ontario birth certificate changed to recognize their gender as non-binary but was told the province is still working on a gender-neutral option for birth certificates and isn't ready to offer the designation yet.

"How would I apply for [a passport] if I can't even obtain a birth certificate — or my other forms of ID that would state non-binary options — that you need to submit as proof of ID when you do a change of status on your passport?" they said.

Joshua M. Ferguson

Writer and filmmaker Joshua M. Ferguson uses the pronouns they, them, and their to reflect their gender identity as a non-binary trans person. (Preston Emerson)

Some say the move by IRCC does not go far enough. Saskatoon parent Fran Forsberg, whose nine-year-old child Renn is transgender, wants to have all gender-identity markers removed from identification documents in Canada.

"It's a step in the right direction but it's still not acceptable," said Forsberg. "Putting an X there singles people out as different. There's no reason to have gender or sexual identity on identification, none whatsoever."  

That position was echoed by barbara findlay, a Vancouver lawyer. She says that while it's better for transgender people to have an option that better reflects their reality, the change does not go far enough.

"One's gender identity is your own business and the state has no business in the undies of the nation," said findlay, who spells her name with lowercase letters. "We don't applaud this development by the federal government."

Clarifications

  • This story has been edited to make it clear that while the passport change involves adding an option to the field that identifies the passport holder's sex, the government says this will provide an option for people "regardless of gender identity or expression."
    Aug 25, 2017 11:30 AM ET