On Australian passports and “X” for sex

THE first person to be granted an X on their passport here in Australia was Alex MacFarlane, first reported in 2003. Eligibility was improved in 2011, under a 2011 revised Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) policy, and the policy was extended across the federal government in 2013.

Close up photo of an Australian passport showing an X in the Sex designation field.

The history of the X sex marker

The only allowable designators under ICAO rules are M, F or X where X signifies “sex unknown”. X has been available since 1945 when the United Nations (UN) vested control of passports in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

We have been advised that the X arose out of the huge refugee migration following World War II. Several international organizations such as the Red Cross were responsible for resettling refugees and displaced persons following that conflict. Emergency passports were generated in large numbers to allow the quick resettlement of individuals without any identifying documentation and from places where that documentation had been destroyed during the war. When making up the passports the agencies could not, from the names alone, decipher the sex of the individuals due to foreign names often being too complicated for the ears of French, English and American aid workers.

X was made an allowable designator in view of the difficulties resettlement aid workers had with unfamiliar names and the sex usually associated with them. The rules do not require that the X must eventually be resolved into an F or M designation, though that was likely the intention when the policy was drafted. We are legally able to take advantage of this facility despite differences between the original objective and the current policy.

'X marks the spot' in the Western Australian newspaper, Perth 11 January 2003. Read at Bodies Like Ours

Australian policy from 2003 to 2011

Australia has issued X on passports at least since 2003 when a Victorian-born Western Australian-resident intersex person, Alex MacFarlane, fought for that designator through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and was reported to receive a passport.

Five or six Australians were granted the right to an X designator under this subsequent policy, where it was necessary to have “not specified” stated on one’s birth certificate to qualify for an X designation. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Sex files documented this policy in section 8.2 (a).

The state of Victoria maintained the only birth registry that was willing to have that appellation on a birth certificate and would only do so for people known to be intersex and where that was evident from the original notification of birth paperwork – the birth certificate.

Consequently X was rarely put on passports.

The 2011 policy increases access

As of 2011, the qualification to receive an ‘X’ sex designation on a passport is based simply on a medical doctor’s letter stating that you live as a person of indeterminate, unknown or non-specified gender*.

The 2011 policy eases the burden of proof so that a letter from a medical practitioner is all that is required to qualify, making it much easier for intersex people and anyone else to opt for it.

The X is available because of an insistence from OII Australia, and especially by our president Gina Wilson who advised the Ministerial Panel, that an X must continue to be available for intersex people who desire it.

Anyone can apply so long as they have a willing doctor – our impression is that this degree of availability was somewhat inadvertent, due to use of the word “intermediate” rather than “intersex”.

OII Australia continues to lobby for the X designator to be freely available to everyone as a matter of choice and without other qualifying documents.

Update, 2013

In mid 2013, the Australian government introduced new federal guidelines for the recognition of sex and gender. These explicitly enable access to ‘X’ gender markers by any intersex or gender diverse person who seeks it and can obtain doctor or psychologist certification. The guidelines standardise federal data on sex and gender, and clarify that the government prefers to collect data on gender, not sex.

More information on the 2013 guidelines.


*Sex, and not gender, is the marker on passports. Legislation and regulations typically don’t distinguish the two.

More information