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'Gathering of Xs' reflects response to removal of gender-neutral option on state IDs

The Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration (or DFA) first permitted the use of ‘X’ as a gender-neutral marker on state identification in 2010. The agency has now asked a legislative panel to approve an emergency rule spelling out a new process that will eliminate that option. Five hundred sixteen Arkansans who currently have the ‘X’ marker will have to designate themselves as male or female once their latest ID expires. 

This policy is one of a series of recently proposed state legislation that has meant to legally define sex under the binary. In regard to the change by the DFA, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "As long as I’m Governor, the Arkansas state government will not endorse nonsense." 

The ACLU (or American Civil Liberties Union) of Arkansas strongly disagrees. Shortly after the announcement, they released a statement that said the change “threatens the safety and dignity of transgender, non-binary, and intersex Arkansans” and that accurate and consistent identity documents are a fundamental necessity. 

On March 16, Good Shepherd NWA Lutheran Church held "A Gathering of Xs," a community conversation of support for those impacted by the removal of the X marker. Clint Schnekloth, the pastor at Good Shepherd, said the goal of the gathering was to give people the opportunity to come together in a safe space to share their thoughts and feelings.

"If I'm gonna host something like that, where it doesn't directly impact me, but I want to be supportive, I kind of want the group to lead," Schnekloth said. "So I'll ask, 'Is that something you'd like to do? Would you want to get together?' and there was definite interest in that. And then for the actual conversation, it was very much led by the group of what is on their minds or how they're feeling about the the impact of that announcement. I think one of the biggest reactions is that people realize it's a real cheap shot. It's targeting a very small group of people in order to score political points, and it's targeting them around an issue that has presented no issues for the state. Your driver's license has all kinds of impacts in your life that you might not necessarily think about right away. But things like employment, if you drive professionally, or filing different kinds of paperwork, either for the state or federal government. And reversing a decision that was already in place than that causes extra complications for people and ostensibly complications for the state and like, toward what end? What, like, what's the goal? So that's the other question that people have. And I have is, What is the goal? Is it purely to score political points, or is there also a motivation in there to track or monitor or, you know, kind of like group, that group of people together in some new ways? And some people have chosen not to put an X, even though their identity is neither male nor female, there's a good number of people who choose not to change it, just because if you don't change it, if you just leave it alone, then you're not you're not attracting that attention. If you put an X on your driver's license, you're literally doing like X marks the spot of like, here's the 400 and some people in the whole state of Arkansas that have that on their driver's license, you know, it's like, setting yourself apart. One of the reasons we hosted the event was simply so people could know that there's community. It's obviously not a huge group of people, and they might be spread across the state. And so just know that we have a community at Good Shepherd of folks who are affected or impacted and that we're happy to connect with more people and be supportive."

Schnekloth said he wishes the state would realign itself with federal regulations when it comes to the ‘X’ marker. In addition to the ability to add ‘X’ on your federal passport as a U.S. citizen, over 20 states already allow this option on state identification.

"The federal government has space for that," Schnekloth said. "So it's just kind of conforming to best practice, it's also conforming to best practice in terms of the medical, scientific community and their sense of gender identity. When the Governor is making the claims that they're making about, you know, 'Women are women and men are men, and we know who they are', and whatever. They can say that from an ideological perspective, but it's not either best practice or true. You know, so yeah, calling on the state to kind of more match that. And I also think that the other thing I would really just want to call on the state to do is to actually invest its time and energy in stuff that actually makes a difference and matters. I just don't understand how targeting, say 400 people in the state around something that hadn't been causing any issues is worth this much energy of the state government."

Brandon is a non-binary Arkansan who attended the Gathering of Xs. They said they’re already facing concerns at their job in regard to the removal of the ‘X’ marker.

"I think it was, like 15 hours after it happened," Brandon said. "And I had gotten done with my day at work. I just recently started a new job as a trucker, which is a job I've been doing for the last five years. But I've just started at this employer, and they required me to get my hazmat endorsement, which we'd had some difficulties with my last employer to get that. And then because of the gender marker, they excused me from it. This employer wasn't excusing me from it, there's a 90 day requirement within hire, and I thought it would be fine but then I got this news, two weeks after I started my job, that she [Governor Sanders] had just decided my biological sex no longer exists. And then I started realizing what is this gonna mean for my hazmat endorsement, because my passport has X for other because I'm neither male nor female. And TSA has to match my passport because it's also federal, and TSA is tied to the hazmat endorsement, which is tied to my commercial driver's license, which right now has an X on it, and that's fine. But if I have to change my gender marker to something inaccurate, I realized very quickly, you know, am I even going to be able to do my job? Am I going to be able to have the certification necessary to do job as a trucker?"

Brandon said they were surprised and shocked at the news. 

"I mean, the last 10 years, Arkansas has recognized that there is an other gender, another sex than just male and female," Brandon said. "And I don't just need 'an' like there are many others, the way that you could say there is another color than red and blue. There's purple, there's green, there's yellow, you know. But they've got these two boxes. And they want to say that the entire spectrum of gender is one of two things, the way that they might as well say the entire spectrum of color is either red or blue. That is absurd. But they want me to check one of those two boxes. And I don't know how that's gonna work. If I could say one thing directly to the state, it is that my uncle who lived in Harrison, Arkansas in 1944, he wasn't even old enough to graduate high school yet when he went into World War II to fight against the kind of government that was doing what this government has promised to do to me. And he gave his life in the US Army in 1944, believing that he was doing so for my right to exist in Arkansas, where my family has been for five generations, we're all Ozark's. He thought that he was fighting for my freedom to exist here to just be who God made me to be. And that I would have that right because of what he was doing. And now, they're deciding that they would rather act like the government that he was fighting against, than to become the government that he was fighting for. And that's not okay."

Brandon said the gathering at Good Shepherd was just meeting with old friends. They did meet some new people, but they’ve been a part of the church for a while now. 

"They're 516 People with an X on their gender marker on their driver's license across the state of Arkansas, and at least 1% of that 516 all go to my church," Brandon said. "So we found a place where they believe that doing what Jesus says is more important than doing what the government says. And protecting people and caring for people feeding people loving your neighbor, regardless of who they are. We've all kind of found each other in that space for years now. And it was just bringing together the few of us who felt like we needed community in that moment. And I definitely needed community in that moment. Because community is what gets us through any of this. It didn't really fix a whole lot. But we weren't really there to fix we were there to support."

I asked Brandon what they would say to those who are in a similar position to them, and they said taking care of yourself is the most important thing you can do. 

"At the risk of religious trauma, because that's the thing for all of us, I would reiterate the words of Jesus who said, 'What you have within you will save you. And if you do not have that within you, what you do not have will not save you'," Brandon said. "There are things that are beyond our control. And we can fight what we can fight. We can do what we can do. And at the end of the day, none of us, not one human being, is going to make it off this planet alive. And so living today, the best that we can live, loving our life, replacing at least ten minutes of the anger about how we're being treated with ten minutes of loving something, whether that's planting a seed in a garden, whether that's reading a book, whether that's spending time with your dog. Find something that you love and spend your time on that because there's no guarantee for tomorrow. And I know that we're feeling that very intensely right now, as the Republicans have repeatedly used the word 'eradicate', to promise that that is what they will do to us. That they will eradicate us from the state, that they will eradicate us from the country, if elected to the presidency in [2025] or [2024], I guess. And those are those are things we can't control by choosing to breathe, choosing to drink water, choosing to remember what we love and who we love and showing up for them and loving ourselves enough to show up for ourselves."

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Sophia Nourani is a KUAF producer and reporter.
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