Published Nov 1, 2017, By Nicholas Ibarra, Santa Cruz Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ >> As the first person in the state officially recognized as neither male nor female, the passing of a new law paving the way for others to follow was a moment of celebration for Sara Kelly Keenan.
And the landmark legislative victory was one in which Keenan played a quiet but key role, ensuring the inclusion of “intersex” individuals such as herself whose biology has both male and female characteristics.
“I’m really glad that the people who come after me are going to have an easier time being legally recognized for who they really are,” said Keenan, 56, who retired from her home in Ben Lomond to Mexico weeks after the bill was signed. “There is such tremendous problem with depression and suicide in the nonbinary and trans community and a lot of that comes out of the world not knowing who we are and that we exist.”
Signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 16, SB 179 — known as the Gender Recognition Act — makes it easier for a person to change their gender designation on birth certificates and state IDs, while also creating a third “nonbinary” category for those who identify as neither male or female.
It also removes the requirement for a court order or physician’s statement to change a person’s gender and eliminates an age requirement.
The law makes California the first state to officially recognize more than two genders on state identification. Earlier in the year, Oregon became first to allow its residents to choose not to specify their gender on state driver’s licenses.
Authored by Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, and Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, the bill was also shepherded through the legislature by its principal co-author, Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley.
The politicians were backed by a coalition of individuals and groups including ACLU California, the California Teachers Association, state Planned Parenthood affiliates, and a host of individuals including Jamie Joy, youth program coordinator at the Diversity Center who identifies as nonbinary.
Opposition to the bill was limited, with just two groups — the California Family Council and Catholics for the Common Good Institute — and two individuals speaking out against the bill in Sacramento, claiming it could lead to identity fraud and cause issues with travel outside the state.
Joy and dozens more supporters carpooled to Sacramento to register their support at a July hearing.
“Our ideas of gender are rapidly evolving and what wasn’t catching up was the legal system and the laws to reflect the culture that’s shifting,” Joy said. “There’s basically a gender revolution happening.”
After years as one of the most vocal advocates for a bill like SB 179, Keenan said she was dismayed to find the language and presentation of the bill at first appeared to exclude people like her.
Keenan is biologically intersex, a blanket term applied to a category of conditions affecting the chromosomes, hormones and genitals and causing individuals to fall outside the binary definitions of male and female. She has male chromosomes and female genitalia, a rare condition called Swyer Syndrome.
About a half-percent of the population is thought to have intersex characteristics.
She said she sat at home watching a press conference on the bill in January that focused entirely on transgender and nonbinary gender identity.
“Since in this society we mix up sex and gender so much, it was clear to me that the people who were writing the bill were writing it in a way that completely erased intersex people from the scenario,” she said.
She said she immediately voiced her concerns to the office of Assemblyman Stone and received a personal reply from the assemblyman within a day.
Soon after, Keenan was invited to Sacramento to testify in front of the relevant committees, and Stone worked with Atkins and Weiner to modify the bill based on Keenan’s input. Now the term intersex features prominently in the bill, including a paragraph definition of the term and its context.
We were sort of being stonewalled in terms of the intersex advocacy community being allowed to participate in the legislative process, and (Stone) banged that door right open,” Keenan said.
BRICK BY BRICK
Keenan said her attention now turns to fighting to end medically unnecessary surgeries performed on intersex infants for cosmetic reasons.
“We look down on certain parts of the world for female genital mutilation, but we mutilate the genitals of infants in this country every day strictly for appearance purposes,” she said.
For Stone, he said that on the inclusivity front he is returning to the less attention-grabbing work of making small changes to state codes.
“Ultimately,” said Stone, “I’ll go back to the initial mission of taking a look at California codes and finding where we can make them more inclusive, and knocking that off a bit at a time.”
While it failed to garner much media coverage, another Stone bill signed by the governor from the recent legislative session was AB 1556, which edited the Fair Employment and Housing Act to include gender neutral terms.
“The goal is to create government interactions, whether through forms or otherwise, that are as inclusive as possible so we don’t have to think twice about who is included, who is not included,” Stone said. “Everybody is included.”