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‘M’ or ‘F’? Outdated IDs worry transgender people

Saturday, June 15, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO — Lauren Grey didn’t think much about the gender recorded on her Illinois driver’s license until she went to test-drive a new car.

Although she had been living as a woman for months and easily obtained a license with her new name and a picture reflecting her feminine appearance, Grey’s ID still identified her as male, puzzling the salesmen and prompting uncomfortable questions.

“They are like, ‘This doesn’t match.’ Then you have to go into the story: ‘I was born male, but now I’m not,’” said Grey, 38, a graphic designer living in suburban Chicago. “And they are like, ‘What does that mean?’ It was super embarrassing.”

Similarly awkward conversations ensued when she tried to rent an apartment, went to bars or was taken out of airport security lines for inspection.

Most U.S. residents don’t think twice about the gender printed on their government-issued documents. But those “M” or “F” markers — and the legal and administrative prerequisites for switching them on passports, birth certificates and other forms of identification — are a source of anxiety and, even, discrimination for transgender individuals.

The rules vary from state to state, agency to agency and even clerk to clerk. But a transgender applicant generally has been required to submit both a court order approving the gender change and a letter from a surgeon certifying that the person underwent irreversible sex reassignment surgery before obtaining a new document.

Over the last few years, though, the emerging movement for transgender rights has been quietly pressing the issue, persuading state lawmakers and federal and state agencies to simplify the lengthy and often costly process.

Advocates recorded their latest victory Friday, when the Social Security Administration announced that it would no longer require proof of surgery to alter the gender identification of individuals in its computers and records.

The move mirrors similar actions by the U.S. State Department, which amended its passport application policies three years ago to do away with the sex reassignment surgery requirement, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which last year did the same for green cards, work permits and other documents it issues.

“Most people may not see this as a big deal, but transgender people know that this seemingly small technical change will protect their privacy and give them more control over their own lives,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said.

“Since 9/11, it’s become … incredibly important to have accurate and consistent identification. Without it, you can’t open a bank account, you can’t use a credit card, you can’t apply for a loan, you can’t get a job, you can’t vote, you can’t get insurance,” said Keisling.

As a result of lawsuits and lobbying, about half of U.S. states — most recently Illinois, Alaska, Virginia and Idaho — now allow residents to revise the gender designations on their driver’s licenses without first undergoing surgery or getting a judge’s approval. Applicants instead must provide a letter from a health professional stating they have received counseling, hormone therapy or another form of gender-transition treatment.

Holding mismatched identification also exposes transgender people to the threat of discrimination or violence, advocates say.

A 2008 survey of 6,450 transgender people conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 40 percent of respondents had been harassed after presenting an ID that conflicted with how they looked. Three percent reported being attacked, and 15 percent said they had been refused service.

State motor vehicle and vital records departments do not keep count of the number of people who seek to amend the gender markers on driver’s licenses and birth certificates each year.

The Williams Institute, a UCLA-based think tank, estimates that 0.3 percent of the adult population in the United States identifies as transgender, or about 698,000 people.

The trend toward making it easier to update such information reflects not only the community’s growing visibility but evolving ideas about what it means to be transgender.

While sex reassignment surgery used to be the benchmark for when a person had fully transitioned to the opposite sex, doctors and psychologists now recognize that not every patient wants to be surgically transformed, or can afford the surgery.

“The gender-change process that was used in many states for identity documents was established in the 1970s, and our understanding of who trans people are … has evolved over time,” said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center. “What you see happening today is a reflection of that reality.”

Meanwhile, acquiring a new birth certificate still requires proof of surgery in all but three states: Washington, California and Vermont, according to research by Lisa Mottet, director of the Transgender Rights Project at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Twenty-four states amend existing birth certificates instead of issuing new ones, a practice that advocates say violates the privacy of transgender people who could be “outed” when they need to show documents that still reflect their biological gender. Another three states, Idaho, Tennessee and Ohio, will not change the gender on a birth certificate under any circumstances.

In California, which in 1977 became the first state to allow transsexuals to secure new birth certificates once they had undergone surgery, streamlining the procedures has been a multi-year endeavor. Supporters persuaded the Legislature in 2011 to eliminate the surgery requirement.

This year, they are trying to create an administrative process that would allow a new birth certificate to be issued without a court order or legal notice in a local newspaper.

Assemblyman Don Wagner voted against both bills, along with many of his fellow Republicans. Wagner says that although he empathizes with people who find the system cumbersome or cost-prohibitive, he is concerned that eliminating long-standing hurdles creates opportunities for identity fraud.

“There should be substantial evidence to make the change, and I feel these bills perhaps lessen that standard,” he said.

Mottet thinks that worries about identity fraud are unwarranted.

“There is no financial incentive or social incentive to have on your documents a gender that doesn’t match who you are. If John Johnson has a criminal record, it doesn’t help him to have a driver’s license or birth certificate listing him as female,” she said.

Ben Hudson, the director of a Sacramento health clinic that provides treatment certification for transgender people seeking to update their IDs, said a bigger problem is transgender people receiving outdated instructions from employees charged with processing their paperwork.

Just last week, he heard from a client who had gone to the local Social Security office to apply for a card showing her new name. The clerk told her — wrongly — that she needed proof of surgery.

“She had the gumption to ask for a manger. But can you imagine how it adds to your anxiety and depression to be turned away after you worked up the nerve to go into that office and tell your story?” Hudson said. “A lot of transgender people are going to want to just tuck tail and run.”

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31 more reader comments:

  1. I was thinking about this recently. Seems like an issue

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 12:26pm
  2. Genderqueer and agender people aren’t too happy either.

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 12:31pm
  3. Omfg. Get a grip eternal activists.

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 12:38pm
  4. I kinda don’t see a problem :/

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 12:58pm
  5. Gender isn’t recorded on driver’s licenses. Sex is. I thought this site of all sites would know the difference between sex and gender.

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 1:02pm
  6. i was once “F” for 4 years !! not a problem.

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 1:51pm
  7. Really, What is your difference between Gender and Sex? Oh you mean if your only mentally a male than you should be forced to be a female. Such bullshit. What part of outdated system do you not understand?

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 2:38pm
  8. What if this weekend i feel like a female and next weekend i feel like a male? Wtf. Just stfu and enjoy your life! Stop this crap. All it says is that you are struggling with yourself, and not society. I have 2 LGBT siblings, neither cry piss and moan as much as you drama queens do.

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 2:59pm
  9. Sex and gender, while not mutually exclusive, are different things. Sex is biological, gender expression is social, gender identity is psychological, and sexual orientation is a combination of the three. Driver’s licenses record sex only, though this shouldn’t necessarily be the case. While it is difficult to put down every bit of information on an identification card, I think having both sex and gender identity would be a good idea. So before getting mad at me for pointing out part of the “outdated system,” which is actually the most recent system (accepted by psychology, sociology, gender studies, and essentially all other aspects of social science), how about looking at how the current method of legal identification should be rectified?

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 3:11pm
  10. Sexual orientation isn’t a factor of any of the three. You can be genetically male, mentally male and socially male while still having sexual desire for men. Other than that, this is correct and is basically how I learned it in college in my Psychology of Sex and Gender class.

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 6:32pm
  11. Some weekends I feel like a male and some weekends I don’t. That’s called being genderfluid and isn’t all that common. Most people are very rigid in their mental gender.

    I’m amused that you use the phrase “eternal activists” as an insult and then return to a page after several hours to continue trolling. What does make you?

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 6:53pm
  12. Well, sexual orientation isn’t a personal factor, really. What I meant by that was that sexual orientation is your attraction to somebody else based on those three factors about them. For example, my sex is male, my gender expression is male, my gender identity is male, and my sexual orientation is attraction towards people who are genetically, mentally, and socially male. And I know that it’s difficult to really “pinpoint” it since all four can be rather fluid, but in terms of driver’s licenses, there are multiple shades of eye colour, slight variations in height, multiple shades of natural hair colour, etc., but the closest fit is put for those. So as far as sex and gender (if they started putting both on licenses), having about three for each category (M/F/N for male, female, and neither/intersex, and M/F/N for man, woman, or neither) would be sufficient in that scenario.

    Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 10:35pm
  13. like us?:)

    Posted on Sunday, June 16, 2013 at 1:28am
  14. i’m sorry but a police officer needs a description including what biological sex you are to make sure its you, just like height weight eye/hair color.

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:04pm
  15. just jump ahead and put human or not human.. maybe that will eventually become to not matter.. what about citizen or not citizen?

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:06pm
  16. What if you don’t look like, have any of the same parts as, conform to, or want to even associate with your biological sex?

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:08pm
  17. well there aren’t transgendered prisons and there simply has to be a way to differentiate unfortunately we are all in boxes of some sort, and I have friends who are transgendered so bright blessings and we shall agree to disagree. I know it’s all about “pc” now but we’re each entitled to ours!

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:13pm
  18. They should be able to tell by your picture if you are male or female. There are exceptions to that rule but for the most part they should.

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:14pm
  19. Your blood when tested would still show a specific gender, and if they’re trying to positively ID someone in order to contact next of kin it’s still a good idea. I understand someone wanting to reflect on how they feel and what they want to associate with, but I also see the other side of things too.

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:15pm
  20. But I think we are beginning to see that gender is so much more than just physical attributes, chromosomes, genes, genitals, etc. It’s not even identity anymore. I think that–very much like sexual preference–we are beginning to recognize that maybe M and F are far too limiting…that there is much more of a sliding scale and infinite gray areas to gender and gender identity.

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:23pm
  21. Right cuz all individuals who are Transgender are on the run from the Cops… so we need them all to have a constant reminder of the life they’re leaving behind for everyone else connivance.

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:28pm
  22. ya, yet another unfortunate situation for people goin thru what has to be the most difficult time in their lives. i cant even imagine…
    keep your faith and reach out to others who suppy world freedom.
    be the best person you can be

    = ]

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:28pm
  23. I know this may upset some folks…but lets think about when someone’s wallet or purse is stolen…this is a way to identify them…(or prove that is not the person who is supposed to have that license) I don’t see why we can’t have M F AND T….

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:37pm
  24. every law we have is because at some point in history society had an issue with that issue. if laws dont include, respect, and treat all equally than those laws should be evaluated and changed.

    people don’t just run out to wallmart to by a penis or breasts!!!
    it takes years of fallowing strict requirements, counseling and living as the desired gender prior to surgery.

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:41pm
  25. I’ve always been lucky, but I’d like to change my name and gender marker, anyway.

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:46pm
  26. It’s not an implication that all trans people are on the run. That’s fucking ridiculous,

    but when people make reports like “Oh I saw a woman leaving the scene of the crime.” if the suspect isn’t registered as a woman, they won’t know who to look for.

    We can’t read minds and hearts, we can only read faces, bodies, and physical shit, and when there’s crime involved, that’s all we can go on, since the guilty, more often than not, never come forward.

    I mean technically, trans people could have their records altered to suit themselves, as most of the ones I know
    match the defining physical traits of their preferred gender. (I’m unsure of the laws regarding that, though.) but you’d have to get them ALL to match up for legal reasons. (that should be legal) The genderfluid and the genderless are rather screwed though, though I suppose technically witnesses might use the term “androgynous” when giving a description to the cops…

    I believe you’re whoever you say you are, so the government going on technicalities seems kind of
    meaningless. You only need recognition from yourself and the one’s closest to you, right?

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:49pm
  27. “if the suspect isn’t registered as a woman, they won’t know who to look for.” <— If someone changes their ID and secure new birth certificate then they would be registered. So the cops would be looking for a woman since she would be listed as such in their data base.

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 10:00pm
  28. The problem is when someone is transgender, they get hassled for pretty much everything requiring ID. My ID has the wrong name and had a picture of me looking very femme. I changed the picture, but people still hassle me and call me ma’am because of that stupid F. As the article points out, we get singled out at airports for extremely invasive searches because our IDs don’t match what we portray.

    As far as the genetic ID, what about intersex individuals (i.e. XXY, XYY, XXYY, XO)?

    As far as the cops looking for a woman, well, if the criminal is really a transwoman, she will continue looking like a woman. If I were to commit a crime where they saw the F on my ID, they would tell the cops to look for a woman. But I neither identify as nor dress like a woman (most of the time), so they would just pass me by. A real trans* person is not going to commit a crime as one gender and then switch. There are also more than two genders and sexes, and the legal binary makes it harder for intersex/genderqueer folks to get anywhere. Australia and New Zealand have it right: offer a third marker.

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 10:05pm
  29. I would also like to point out to Timothy that they DO separate trans* individuals in prison. It’s called administrative segregation. There is even a separate facility for transgender individuals in Los Angeles. SO yes, they are working towards that. Regardless of what you think, most of us are NOT criminals, and many of us are incensed that those in prison have more access to medical transition than those of us who follow the law.

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 10:12pm
  30. Simple Solution: M (Male) F (Female) T (Transgender) simple pimple :)

    Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 11:30pm
  31. It seems that all of your comments are based on either appearances or genitals. In fact, the former can easily be altered and the latter can be easily hidden. In this context, the “M” or “F” is an unnecessary data field. Further, both of these ‘identifiers’ are merely gender ‘markers’ that say absolutely nothing about a person’s sexual identity.

    Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at 5:19am