The Lead

Pa. Republican looks to block PennDOT from officially offering gender-neutral licenses

By: - September 4, 2019 2:58 pm

A sample Pennsylvania driver’s license (PennDOT)

A Republican lawmaker from central Pennsylvania wants to stop the Wolf administration from officially offering gender-neutral driver’s licenses.

But under state law — which makes no reference to sex or gender on licenses — the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation says its legal authority is clear and would oppose the bill.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, released a memo asking his House colleagues to support his bill mandating that the commonwealth’s driver’s licenses list an individual’s sex as either male or female.

“The addition of gender identity designations in place of sex designations is a significant policy change that warrants legislative approval,” Topper wrote in his co-sponsorship memo. 

In July, the Daily Item, of Sunbury, Pa., reported that PennDOT is planning to let gender queer, non-binary, or trans Pennsylvanians select an “X” in place of male or female by 2020. 

‘Very validating and very affirming’: Pa. to add gender neutral option for driver’s licenses in 2020

Current licenses list the word “sex,” not gender, although the state vehicle code makes no reference to either term. The law states that licenses need a unique number as well as a person’s name, date of birth, address, photo, signature, and “other information as may be required by the department.”

Meanwhile, federal Real ID regulations require driver’s licenses to list a “person’s full legal name, date of birth, and gender,” with the definition of gender left up to individual states.

Topper distinguished between gender and sex while explaining his proposal.

“We’re not talking about gender, we’re talking about sex,” Topper told the Capital-Star. “If we’re going to change that to gender, let’s talk about changing it. But let’s not confuse either terms.”

An individual’s sex is biologically assigned at birth and includes biological and reproductive differences, such as hormones and genitals.

An individual’s gender relates to social and cultural norms, as well as roles often linked to, but sometimes separate from, biological sex. Gender identity refers to a person’s innate feeling and concept of themselves. 

Topper pointed to August reporting from WHYY-FM in Philadelphia that found non-binary individuals already use a loophole to obtain gender-neutral IDs from PennDOT.

In an emailed statement, PennDOT press secretary Alexis Campbell said state law, as currently written, gives the state the authority to provide gender-neutral IDs, and that IDs must have a marker of gender to meet federal guidelines.

“PennDOT has clear authority under the law to make this option available as part of our ongoing work to create a licensing product and process that is inclusive of all Pennsylvanians, and we would oppose any legislation that would prevent this from happening,” Campbell said.

Brenda Klitsch, a staff attorney for the Mazzoni Center, a Philadelphia-based LGBTQ health and wellness group, also pointed out that Pennsylvania’s statute does not require mentioning sex or gender. 

As “not everyone fits neatly in a binary distribution in either gender or sex,” Klitsch said that regardless of definitions, having a third option makes sense.

“If the purpose of an ID is to identify a person, shouldn’t we have accurate information on the ID?” Klitsch told the Capital-Star.

The option of using an “X,” Klitsch added, would be open to all Pennsylvanians to protect their privacy, whether they are non-binary or not.

With PennDOT already giving out these neutral cards, marked with an “X” or “U” — meaning “undefined” — Topper said the department is making a “radical departure from public policy that should have legislative input.”

“I’m not looking at this as any kind of a statement on the LGBT community, or any kind of statement of what I believe personally,” Topper added.

Topper said he is seeking input from law enforcement and the medical community. But Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, a state LGBT advocacy group, told the Capital-Star that the government “should have no business in labeling people’s sex or gender.

The group had been involved in lobbying for the initial change, however, because while IDs are needed, “it should be accessible to all people,” Goodman added.

“The unfortunate reality is LGBT people are still viewed as props in political theatre, and we should be beyond this,” he said.

This story was updated at 4:15 p.m. with additional comment from the Mazzoni Center.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.