Auto Insurance

Is it time for the car insurance industry to abolish gender markers?

By: Jessica Mach on July 30, 2018

Back in May, reported a story about an Alberta man who claimed, via Reddit, that he’d legally changed his gender from male to female to get access to cheaper auto insurance.

In an interview with the CBC last week, the man — whom the CBC referred to as David — said that his actions were motivated only by a need to point out how insurers handed out more favourable rates to women than men. He had not, he told the CBC, pulled the stunt “to point out how easy it is to change genders” or “to criticize or ridicule transgender or LGBT rights.”

But, there are some issues with David’s claims and in general, his entire stunt.

His claims stand in contradiction to what he had written in his original Reddit post, which was published in April. In the post, David detailed how he legally changed his gender to get cheaper auto insurance. “I didn’t legally change my sex solely for cheaper auto-insurance,” he wrote. Instead, he seemed to suggest that the move was partly motivated by his conflicts with his own gender identity, writing that auto insurance rates “was and is a big factor for me and other people who suffer from gender-dysphoria.”

The discrepancies between David’s original account, and his more recent telling to the CBC, casts some doubts over the intentions behind his stunt. And it seems that others would agree.

In another interview with the CBC last week, Marie Little, former chair of the Trans Alliance Society (TAS) in Vancouver, said that David’s actions “cheapens the whole process. It sort of casts doubt on everybody else's motives for making those changes.”

She added, “I think it gives ammunition to people who want to take rights away from trans people.”   

David’s is not the first stunt of its kind. In 2016, cisgender, B.C.-born alt-right activist Lauren Southern famously changed her legal gender from female to male, solely to draw attention to the alleged “ease” with which individuals can change their legal gender markers in Ontario.

Over the weekend, we caught up with Morgane Oger, current chair of the TAS, to discuss the implications of stunts like David’s and Southern’s. Oger, who is also vice president of the B.C. New Democratic Party, agrees that both cases immediately register as “yet another attack on the validity of trans people.”

But, she also acknowledges that they do contribute to a discourse on how the state, as well as corporations like insurance companies, disproportionately rely on gender markers in order to function. And that, she argues, is something that needs to change.

How sex markers are not useful — least of all for insurers

When the CBC published its interview with David last week, the story struck a nerve. It was sensational and also troubling. But, it also dovetailed neatly with long-standing conversations about the role of gender in auto insurance calculations — or, as Oger puts it, the increasingly popular idea that “making assumptions about the sex designations of people is no longer a useful thing.”

In Canada, insurers typically calculate a driver’s auto insurance rates by taking two main factors into account: their individual driving and claims history and the number of claims that a driver’s age, gender, and location demographics have made in the past. Critics of this algorithm have long argued that it is discriminatory, since the rates that it produces do not actually reflect how safely a customer drives.

As rates steadily climbed across the country in recent years, more critics began to call for an overhaul of how insurers calculate risk. In the lead up to Ontario’s last provincial election in June, the Liberals, NDP, and Progressive Conservatives all ran on platforms that proposed banning insurers from practicing “postal code discrimination” — i.e., calculating a driver’s risk based on where they live. Numerous reports published in recent years noted that insurers have an established pattern of charging higher premiums to low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto.

Oger points out that the current data points used to calculate insurance don’t necessarily even benefit the insurance industry. This is especially the case with the gender metric, since — as David’s stunt proved — a driver’s gender can be legally changed with little issue.

“Across Canada today, anybody can change their sex designation with limited barriers,” Oger says. “In all of Quebec, sex designations can be changed with attestation from a friend saying that this person lives as that sex, and has done so for a year. That’s all that is needed… There are [also] no limits on how often you can change your designation.

“This is just an unreliable data point.”

Insurers are usually for-profit organizations, Oger explains, that need to generate a certain amount of revenue in order to keep functioning. If the health of their budgets relies on servicing a certain number of male drivers (who pay higher rates) and a certain number of female drivers (who pay lower rates), then a sudden shift in the male-to-female ratio — because, say, a large number of male drivers decide to follow David’s example — will quickly upset the system.

“If too many people imitate what this guy does, then the insurance companies will find themselves in a situation where they don’t meet their revenue needs,” Oger says. “The fact of the matter is, gender is not a reliable source of truth. And the fact of the matter is, it’s mutable.”

A case for abolishing gender markers altogether

Oger is currently involved with a complaint on the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, which is asking that sex designations be removed from birth certificates. She is also a member of the Gender-Free I.D. Coalition. According to its website, the organization is dedicated to removing all gender and sex designations from identity documents like driver’s licenses and birth certificates, which present “bureaucratic hurdles for Canadians with non-binary genders and sexes.”

As evidenced by the case of the auto insurance industry, relying on gender markers and the data associated with them is not only unnecessary — it can also yield inaccurate information. But, the limited usefulness of gender markers is not the only reason Oger wants to get rid of them. Gender, she says, is something that should not be subject to any policing at all.

“My gender is the gender that I say it is,” she says. “It shouldn’t be policed, and there should be no barriers to gender identity. Which is also why it’s not certifiable.”

This position somewhat complicates criticisms of David and Southern — cisgender people who have deliberately exploited a process designed, at least nominally, to facilitate the needs of people with a genuine desire to transition. While Oger agrees that their actions are “reprehensible” — “pretending to be of a marginalized community in order to make a point is a disgusting kind of oppression,” she says — she maintains that the obstacles to legally changing your gender should stay minimal — even if it means that the system will be more easily mocked or exploited.

“The barriers should be low,” she says. “Or there should be no barrier. As a matter of fact, the barrier should be zero, and that’s upheld by law of discrimination — the human rights law against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression.” As a matter of fact, the only reason that people like David and Southern can mock the system at all, is because the system exists.

“It’s being used,” Oger says. “The negative aspect of Southern, and this guy, is that they choose to do something. Now with Southern, the point she was making it, is trans people are not really trans.”