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Mass. considers a third gender option for IDs: ‘X’

Ella, a MetroWest teenager, was the inspiration for a Senate bill to add a gender-neutral option on Massachusetts IDs.
Ella, a MetroWest teenager, was the inspiration for a Senate bill to add a gender-neutral option on Massachusetts IDs.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

For more than a century Massachusetts has required drivers to have state-issued licenses before getting behind the wheel, and for much of that time it has asked recipients to declare their gender as either male or female, M or F.

Now, at the urging of a teenager from the MetroWest region, the state is considering giving motorists a third option: X.

The goal is to accommodate drivers who identify as non-binary — as neither male nor female — and who say the current options don’t accurately represent their gender identity.

“Having this extra choice for people who would like it just shows the people of the Commonwealth that trans people exist and trans people deserve to be normalized in society,” said Ella, the 16-year-old advocate who inspired the legislative effort.

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The Senate voted Thursday for the measure that would make X an option on state IDs by November 2018. The Registry of Motor Vehicles also confirmed its new computer system has a non-binary gender option but has yet to roll it out.

Senator Karen E. Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, sponsored the legislation at the urging of Ella, a constituent whose family requested to keep the teen’s last name and hometown private because Ella is a minor. Spilka said that her bill, if enacted, would codify the change and ensure that it is carried out. Representative Patricia A. Haddad has proposed similar legislation in the House; Governor Charlie Baker has not weighed in on the bill.

The proposed change comes as Massachusetts wrestles with other policy issues surrounding gender identity. Just this week, House lawmakers passed a bill that would ban conversion therapy for minors, and in November, state voters will decide whether to repeal a 2016 transgender anti-discrimination law.

Three states and Washington, D.C., have laws allowing for a gender-neutral option on government IDs, and 13 states and Washington have laws banning conversion therapy for minors.

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Critics of the gender ID initiative raised considers whether Massachusetts would remain compliant with new national Real ID standards with the X option. Spilka addressed that during Senate debate on Thursday, saying that the federal law only requires that IDs have a gender marking, but not what that marking must be.

Andrew Beckwith, president of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, said he opposes the change because gender is not a “verifiable fact” and added that government IDs are meant to reflect “objective facts like height, age, and sex.”

The House also approved Wednesday a bill that would make it illegal for any licensed counselor to try to convince a minor to change their gender identity or sexual orientation — a practice known as conversion therapy.

“The bill is a commonsense measure to ensure medically sound, professional conduct by state-licensed health providers and to protect LGBTQ youth from being exposed to fraudulent, ineffective, and very harmful practices,” said Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat who sponsored the bill, in a statement.

A previous version of the bill would have also made parents who sent their kids to so-called conversion therapy guilty of child abuse, but that was struck from the version that the House eventually adopted. A spokesperson for Senate President Harriette L. Chandler said the Senate plans to take up the bill in the coming weeks.

A spokesperson for Baker said the administration is “proud of the Commonwealth’s history of support for equal rights and protecting all citizens against discrimination, and we will carefully review any legislation that reaches the Governor’s desk.”

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Michael King, of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said his group was happy about the removal of the child abuse provision but called the conversion therapy legislation “unconstitutional” on First Amendment grounds, referring to a recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down a California law that forced crisis pregnancy centers to provide information on state-sponsored abortion services.

Beckwith said that if this legislation were to become law, it would face legal challenge.

In 2016, Baker signed off on a law allowing individuals to use the bathroom or locker room that matches their gender identity. A ballot question in November will offer state voters the opportunity to repeal that anti-discrimination law.

A Suffolk University Political Research Center poll taken in June showed that 49 percent of respondents would vote to keep the law, 37 percent of respondents said they’d vote to repeal it. 13 percent were undecided.


Jamie Halper can be reached at jamie.halper@globe.com.