Gender Marker X: One Person's Journey Beyond M or F
AC Dumlao grew up in New York City during a time when most people didn't even know what trans and gender nonconforming meant—today, the city finally acknowledges they exist.
Photo by Alyza Enriquez.
AC Dumlao is a first-generation Filipino-American non-binary person from New York City. They are the program director of the Name Change Project at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, a legal advocacy organization that helps low-income trans people in part by aiding them in the process of legal name changes. Dumlao was born in Brooklyn and found their path to advocacy and education through a long, uncertain process of self-reckoning. Today, they are going through a process to legally alter their birth certificate to identify their gender as "X."
In addition to working at TLDEF, they speak at colleges about transgender and non-binary issues, and operate social media pages like menswearselfcare, and their Twitter, providing support to the trans community far beyond New York. They have also written for Broadly, offering guidance for how to be an ally to non-binary people. But the city is their home, and they've been part of shaping it into a more progressive and accepting place for TGNC individuals. A new law in New York City, effective 2019, allows city residents to amend their birth certificates without the authorization of a physician or a legal reason. AC is currently going through the process of having their gender marker amended to X on their birth certificate—but they were also one of the people who helped make such a change possible.
"We don't live in a vacuum where there's no government. Obviously, it would be ideal if we could write in our gender markers, F, M, X, Z—whatever," Dumlao said, but they assert it's necessary to have the state recognize non-binary existence, even in limited ways. "The world telling you 'you don't exist' takes a huge emotional toll. It's something that you're confronted with every day." For many trans people, proper pronouns on official documents are a matter of safety: If a person's government identification doesn't correspond to their lived identity, it can expose the sex they were assigned at birth, which may open people up to discrimination.
Dumlao believes that New York City's new law will be a catalyst for other parts of government and society to create more awareness, acceptance, and formal recognition of non-binary people. Right now, you can't get a state ID or driver's license with a gender marker other than M or F—but there may be legal arguments to be made to change that when, in the process of getting one of these documents, a non-binary person presents a birth certificate that legally identifies them as neither male nor female.
On June 13 of last year, AC testified before the New York City Council Committee on Health in support of altering the policies around birth certificate amendment. They stated, in part, that though NYC recognized trans and non-binary identity in various ways, there are limitations to that recognition: "After changing one’s name on their government IDs in NYC, this is where this freedom stops," Dumlao said. "I commiserate with them. I am not a woman. Nor am I a man." In Dumlao's work with distressed non-binary clients and Dumlao's speaking via their many platforms as an advocate, the pain of being invisible in society is plain to them. Of course, as a non-binary person, Dumlao has also carried this burden on their own shoulders.
"The world telling you 'you don't exist' takes a huge emotional toll."
"Coming out as non-binary was the best thing that ever happened to me," Dumlao said, explaining the expansive benefit that having the right language to identify themselves has been to their well-being. It was confusing to know that they were different but to have no words to explain why, effecting their self-perspective, mental health, and feeling of belonging in their community. However unfortunate, it isn't surprising. "A person being non-binary is very rare for the 'average' person to understand," they said. "People don't know what it means—because it's literally not on forms... It's not just that people are being transgressive and going against their assigned gender, it's that they want a third option."
The issue is profoundly important to Dumlao's most personal and private self. As a non-binary person growing up, Dumlao wasn't even aware, for most of their life, that they, themselves, existed. Instead they lived, as many transgender people have, under the standards of "male" and "female," which can make it difficult for the most binary-oriented of transgender men and women to realize who they are. For someone whose identity is neither male or female, finding language, culture, community, and acceptance for who you are, can be that much more difficult, and unlikely.
In college, Dumlao identified as a lesbian, but even then felt restrained; they were raised Catholic and hadn't been exposed to queer communities or spent time exploring the possibilities for their self. In student groups, "We would do the pronoun go-around at every session," Dumlao said, explaining it was their "first concrete exposure" to a community that centered gender self-identification, and one where people were opting out of the binary gender model.
"It was surprising that folks could know that about themselves, because it didn't even seem like an option until I heard real life people talking about it," Dumlao said. They had heard about, or read about, trans culture, but being there made the difference: Taking identity from concept to practice was the key. Those people gave me the confidence," Dumlao said, to begin facing the truth about their own identity.
"Having the X gender marker on New York City birth certificates is creating that option to be visible. I don't think 'X' is going to create equality for non-binary people, but at least it says in the law that X is an option." Dumlao opened a manilla envelope, holding the paperwork that will finally force the state to recognize who they are. "Without it, the world's rejection of non-binary people would be that much more painful. "