Michigan may add third gender option to driver's license

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is exploring the addition of a third gender option on Michigan licenses as early as 2021. 

Benson’s office is working to include the option as part of a larger upgrade of the department’s driver’s license database software, said spokesman Jake Rollow. 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

“We’re exploring with the vendor whether there’s a possibility to add a non-binary designation,” Rollow said.

Michigan would become the 14th state to make such a change. Washington, D.C., and New York City also have adopted similar options, which largely allow drivers to select an “X” instead of “M” or “F” to indicate their gender.

It's not yet clear how the designation would appear on Michigan licenses, Rollow said, noting the detail could depend on the capacity of the vendor performing the upgrade. Nor is it clear whether the new designation could be accomplished through an administrative rule change. 

"At this exploratory stage we have not yet finished the analysis of whether or not legislative approval would be needed to include a non-binary option," he said. 

The input of several groups led to Benson's effort to try to change the designation, Rollow said. 

“It’s not in response to any one communication,” he said. “We’ve heard the calls from LGBT communities across the state, both individuals and groups.”

Equality Michigan applauded Benson's willingness to consider the change. Some transgender individuals don't carry IDs or face trouble when they do because their designation doesn't match the way they present, said Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan. 

"Modernizing our current policy helps to remove barriers and it also says all Michiganders, including transgender individuals, are deserving of dignity and respect," Knott said. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, with a coalition of other LGBT-friendly groups, requested Benson provide a third option in a letter sent to the Democratic secretary of state after she took office in January 2019. 

At the time, Benson said the department’s technology prevented her from offering such an option and instead first made changes for transgender people to more easily switch their gender designation from male to female or female to male, said Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT project. 

Benson’s office said the technology changes might be complete in 2021, allowing for a third gender designation.

“There’s a number of people who don’t identify as gender binary,” Kaplan said. “People want to have accurate identity documents that accurately reflect who a person is.”

More than 3,000 people have opted for the "not specified" option on Oregon driver's licenses and state IDs since the state became the first to make such a change in July 2017, said David House, public information officer for the division of Driver and Motor Vehicles within the Oregon Department of Transportation. There are roughly 3.5 million people with a driver's license or state ID in Oregon.

Anyone can register as "not specified" in Oregon, House said, even if they identify as male or female. The change only required an administrative rule change to take effect in Oregon. 

"The laws require us to record gender," House said. "There’s nothing in there that says it can only be these two things.”

In November, Benson announced a new policy making it easier for people to change the sex designation on state-issued driver’s licenses and ID cards. 

The old policy required Michigan residents to provide a birth certificate, passport or court order to change the designation. Benson’s change allows individuals to change that designation by filling out a form, visiting an office to have their photo taken and paying the $9 correction fee for a driver’s license or $10 fee for a state ID.