December 17, 2021 - 11:18am

British passports all carry a sex marker, F (female) or M (male). Until recently this was uncontroversial. Apart from some transsexuals who have been through a process of gender reassignment, it indicates biological sex. There are two sexes and hence two markers.

But that is not good enough for Christie Elan-Cane, a campaigner who was born female but identifies as “non-gendered.” In 1995, Elan-Cane contacted the UK Passport Authority to inquire whether it was possible for a passport to be issued without making a declaration of being male or female. The answer was “no”.

The case has rumbled on for years with both the High Court and the Court of Appeal turning down Elan-Cane’s case. And, as of this week, the Supreme Court has also dismissed it:

The importance of maintaining a coherent approach across government to the question of whether, and if so in what circumstances, any gender categories beyond male and female should be recognised.
- Supreme Court

That is a welcome judgement, but its importance goes far beyond just passports. Sex — and I use that word deliberately — is fundamental to our species. It is the reason we are here. Sadly, it also leads to the oppression and objectification of women. Gender, on the other hand, is far less well-defined. Sometimes it is synonymous with sex, but it can also allude to gender identity, a nebulous concept that can be likened to a gendered soul.

In their submission to the court, Fair Play for Women, argued that:

In order to secure women’s sex-based rights and protections, UK law and systems of governance must continue to distinguish birth, or legal sex from self-selected gender identity.
- Fair Play for Women

While there can be any number of different gender identities — the list is open-ended — there are only two sexes. It is binary.  So, by allowing a third category (some foreign passport authorities issue passports with an X marker), it would mean that the passport would indicate the holder’s gender identity rather than their sex. Indeed, the marker would mean whatever the holder wished it to mean, changing an objective descriptor into a mere subjective label. That should concern everybody.

This Supreme Court judgement, therefore, goes beyond the rights of Elan-Cane and others who might identify as non-binary. But even for them, the potential benefits are uncertain. While they might find some satisfaction in removing their sex from their records, they cannot change the way that others think about them. Our bodies are not mere perambulating devices; we are proficient at identifying the sex of other people’s bodies. To deny that is to deny reality.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and a transgender campaigner.