Breaking from the binary: Enhancing gender and pronoun inclusivity in federal programs
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Breaking from the binary: Enhancing gender and pronoun inclusivity in federal programs

July 13, 2023 | Updated on December 1, 2023
Melanie Klein, Emma Shirato Almon

In 2016, Lisa Shupe successfully petitioned an Oregon circuit court to become the first person to legally identify as nonbinary in the United States.  

While federal language has historically adhered to a gender binary—the classification of gender in two categories of male and female—the successful petition, combined with two recent executive orders, has led federal programs to change the way they collect and display their customers’ gender information. 

Enhancing inclusive governance and X-panding gender markers 

In 2021, the Biden administration issued executive orders to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity across the nation and in the federal workforce. The latter order called for revising employee identification standards to ensure that nonbinary employees could update their gender markers and pronouns on federally issued credentials and across employee systems and profiles.  

A year later, on Transgender Day of Visibility, agencies announced a wave of new measures to use gender-neutral technologies, and gender-inclusive intake and identification processes, to reduce barriers for nonbinary, agender, transgender, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming individuals accessing government services. 

The Department of Homeland Security began to shift from gender-based to gender-neutral Advanced Imaging Technology scanners that reduce false alarms and invasive pat downs by the Transportation Security Administration.  

The Department of State introduced a third gender marker, X, on the U.S. passport application. With consultation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, X is defined as “unspecified or another gender identity.” TSA PreCheck also adopted this category and promotes its accepted use with airline partnerships.  

Similarly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began including X on voluntary self-identification questions when filing a charge of discrimination.  

Addressing the gender binary in government data and digital platforms 

In June 2023, the U.S. Web Design System provided guidance for federal agencies on how to collect users’ pronouns and address users by their pronouns on digital platforms. They advise the use of long open-text fields to allow for a variety of diacritics, accents and alternative characters that can make users more comfortable when specifying their pronouns. 

As federal agencies embrace gender-inclusive data collection and display practices on government sites and platforms, they must ensure those standards and practices are carried through in the back end. 

Meredith Broussard, a data journalism professor at New York University, acknowledges how social norms, like binary gender classification, are often encoded in computer systems

She highlights an example where a private company allowed users to select a “custom” gender option and they/them pronouns but categorized them as female or male based on their pronoun selection when packaging user data for third party advertisers. According to Broussard, “The real challenge ahead is in making our current and future technological systems more inclusive while avoiding the mistakes and biases of the past.” 

These caveats aside, the administration and agency efforts mentioned above signify notable progress when it comes to recoding federal systems to recognize and serve nonbinary individuals. 

Melanie Klein is a former intern at the Partnership for Public Service. Emma Shirato Almon is a former manager at the Partnership for Public Service.

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