TVO: Does it really matter if sex disappears from Ontario birth certificates?

Following driver’s licences, birth certificates may be the next Ontario documents to get the gender-neutral treatment. We look at what that could mean

  The province may remove sex from birth certificates, although a recent poll shows 57 per cent of Ontario residents oppose the move. (marcos77/iStock)

The province may remove sex from birth certificates, although a recent poll shows 57 per cent of Ontario residents oppose the move. (marcos77/iStock)

A number of trans and non-binary Canadians are arguing for the removal of sex as an identifier on government-issued ID.

Ontario-born activist and filmmaker Joshua Ferguson, who identifies as non-binary, wants the designation changed on their (Ferguson’s preferred pronoun) birth certificate.

Dustin Dyck, a father in Saskatchewan, is fighting to have his 14-year-old’s birth certificate scrubbed of a sexual identifier, because he says it’s led to severe bullying. (The teen, named Jordyn, identifies as “agender,” or genderless.)

A British Columbia couple demanded and, in June, received a health card for their baby, Searyl, with a “U” in place of an “M” or “F.” But the province won’t issue a birth certificate without a sex identifier, so now the parents are suing the Vital Statistics Agency.

Ontario decided in March to allow drivers to have an “X” on their licences instead of an “M” or “F” to indicate that they don’t identify as male or female. As of June 2016, sex does not appear on Ontario health cards.

Birth certificates are the next provincial document in line. The government held public consultations on the issue last summer and could take sex off birth certificates as early as next year.

“As a part of its review in developing a gender-neutral option for the Ontario birth certificate the ministry is assessing the reasons and benefits of having the identifier present,” Harry Malhi, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, wrote in an email. “This includes whether it would change anything for government and other organizations if the sex identifier was not on the certificate.”

But it’s not a particularly popular idea: 57 per cent of Ontario residents opposed removing sex from birth certificates in a recent Angus Reid poll.

“I don’t see this really as having much to do with trans people or non-binary people,” says Nicole Nussbaum, an Ontario lawyer with expertise in sex and gender issues. “I think the broader question is, why is the government certifying peoples’ sex on an identification card when sex is a prohibited ground of discrimination?”

Nussbaum notes that equality means there should be no legal difference between males and females. “There was a time when people with one letter could vote and own property and be senators, and people with a different letter could not. So that was an important legal distinction.”

Even so, the birth certificate serves as a foundational identity document, writes Malhi. When an individual applies for a passport or wants to access other government services, sex is used to verify identity, along with other information, he says.

“Sex information collected at birth also plays an important role for both government and other organizations to make policy decisions and to do research on our diverse socio-economic reality. For example, the sex information collected at birth assists in making decisions on important topics such as fertility rates, life expectancy rates, labour force participation and perinatal outcomes,” he says.

“This could have major implications for demographic and epidemiological research,” Don Kerr, a sociology professor at King’s University College in London, Ontario, writes in an email. “Vital Statistics (births/deaths) is one of the most important sources of data for many social scientists.”

Tracking sex helps researchers identify trends that can guide policymaking, Kerr says. “In documenting these trends, government can keep track of where we are making progress, and for whom, and subsequently devote resources. We can also make projections, and see what the demand for future services might be.”

It also allows demographers to track birth-sex ratios — the number of males born relative to females. This can give researchers the tools to make population estimates or international comparisons, and could alert a government to serious issues such as sex-selective abortion. Some parts of Asia, Kerr says, have ratios approaching 115 males to 100 females. In Canada, he notes, the ratio is “hovering at about 105–106 males to every 100 females.

“In documenting infant mortality carefully and in isolating cases of death by gender, we can get a better idea as to underlying social/cultural causes and potential intervention and prevention,” he wrote. “It seems to me that we should try to obtain as much information as possible for research, as there is definitely a sex dimension (biological) to mortality.”

But the government can collect data for statistics or research without having it appear on any form of personal identification. “There’s very good reason to collect data on the sex of babies that are born. That does not mean that you have to put somebody’s sex on a birth certificate,” Nussbaum says. “Those are two different things.”

Even if sex is not included on birth certificates anymore, the Ontario government would still collect that data for statistical purposes in certain circumstances, Malhi says.

But one of the challenges is that birth certificates are the foundational identification documents for many other forms of ID that still do require sex. The International Civil Aviation Organization, for example, requires an “F,” “M,” or “X” on all passports.

Malhi says the Ontario government is consulting with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and Statistics Canada, as well as with other provinces and territories, on any proposed changes to regulations.