Not a man, not a woman: Why this writer wants a non-binary Ontario birth certificate

A Vancouver writer and filmmaker is coming to Toronto to apply for a change of sex designation from male to non-binary in hopes of getting a new birth certificate — something that's part personal journey, part activism.

Vancouver writer and filmmaker coming to Toronto to submit application

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

Joshua M. Ferguson first came out as queer at 15 in the small Ontario town of Napanee.

Then came the bullying, physical abuse and death threats.

"I was the only out queer person in the entire high school of 1,500 kids," recalls the 34-year-old writer, filmmaker and activist who now calls Vancouver home.

Two decades after coming out, Ferguson identifies as neither a man nor a woman — and wants to take a stand on behalf of other non-binary Canadians.

Ferguson plans to head to a Service Ontario office Friday to apply for a change of sex designation from male to non-binary in hopes of getting a new birth certificate — something that's part personal journey, part activism on behalf of a community Ferguson says has a "lack of recognition."

Ferguson, an Ontario-born writer and filmmaker, hopes to obtain a birth certificate that says non-binary instead of male. (Joshua M. Ferguson)

Non-binary people "are completely invisible in our society," Ferguson says in an exclusive interview with CBC Toronto. "And we've been around forever."

Ferguson uses the pronouns they, them and their to reflect gender identity as a non-binary trans person — an identity realized some five years ago. 

"I was really quite unhappy, depressed, and I knew there was something in my life that I hadn't figured out yet," Ferguson says. "There was always a piece missing, a piece of how I understood myself."

Vancouver couple Ferguson, right, and partner Florian Halbedl. (Joshua M. Ferguson)

Government tackles ID concerns over gender identity

After submitting the application to Ontario's vital statistics registry later this week, Ferguson must wait for the government's decision — which could take up to six weeks — before applying for a change of sex on other forms of government-issued ID.

That's, of course, if the province approves it — and that's a big if.

Toronto transgender activist Susan Gapka says it's likely others have tried similar applications for a non-binary Ontario birth certificate privately, and have probably denied.

"People are registered at birth. They're registered in a sex without consent," says Gapka. "You can only apply in the jurisdiction where you're born ... at the current time, you cannot amend your registration of birth to anything other than male or female categories."

A close-up photo shows a hand holding a Canadian passport.
The federal government recently announced that Canadians will soon have a third passport option to tick off other than 'male' or 'female.' (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

But, Gapka says that's slowly changing. Starting last year, Ontario began issuing gender-neutral health cards and, later, gender-neutral driver's licences.

It's a conversation happening across the country.

Ferguson's application follows one by a St. John's activist who recently applied for a non-binary birth certificate in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The federal government also has said Canadians will soon have a third option, other than "male" or "female," to tick off on their passports. 

The move is meant to be in the spirit of Bill C-16, which would update the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, making it illegal to discriminate based on gender identity or expression. 

That's all good news to Ferguson.

"I think in the near future, we're finally going to be counted as human beings. And that is so powerful, and so necessary."

With files from Kathleen Harris, CBC News