THE BLOG

Papers, Please

04/04/2014 03:49 pm 15:49:29 | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Imagine for a moment you work at a U.S. military base as a contractor. You step out of a bathroom after using it, and are immediately confronted by someone with base security. He demands you present identification proving your gender, otherwise he will arrest you. Your mind races, blood pounds in your ears, flight or fight kicks in -- being arrested will probably cost you your clearance, your job and any chance you have of working in your career field again.

"Have you had the procedure?" he demands again. "Prove you've had the surgical procedure or else I'll have the MPs come down here and figure it out." The implication is clear: Come up with an ID, or they will arrest and strip search you in order to inspect your genitals.

You produce a passport.

It has your correct gender on it.

The security officer looks at the passport and glares back.

"Keep this on you. The other officers have been instructed to keep you out unless you prove it to them too."

If this seems improbable, it's not. One of my closest friends had this happen to her recently at an Army base in Georgia recently. The only things that saved her from humiliation and unemployment was the Department of State's new policy on issuing passports to transgender people, and the guard's lack of familiarity with the fact that a corrected passport does not require Gender Confirmation Surgery (GCS).

Another nearly identical incident took place just this last week at a North Carolina community college.

As these examples illustrate, obtaining accurate ID as a transgender person can be the difference between being employed and unemployed, between being questioned and released by authorities, and being stripped and brutalized. It can be the difference between being able to vote, and being disenfranchised as well.

Laws governing changing your identification to reflect your correct name and gender are a bewildering hodgepodge that varies from state to state, and government agency to government agency. In 22 states, you cannot get a driver's license without having proof of having had GCS. In five of those states (Iowa, Kentucky, Montana, Virginia and Texas), proof of GCS is a new birth certificate.

Unfortunately, if you're living in one of these five states (IA, KY, MT, VA, TX) but born in Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee, or Texas, you're out of luck. There's no legal mechanism to change your birth certificate in these four states.

Birth certificates are even more difficult to change. Besides the four states that won't make changes under any circumstances, all but California, Vermont, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia require GCS. While the surgical requirement might seem to make sense on the surface, it ignores several crucial realities.

The first is that many transgender people, particularly transgender men, do not want GCS, according to the NTDS study. This may be because of the medical risks, multiple surgeries required, and negative perceptions about it in the trans masculine community.

The second crucial piece is that most transgender people don't have access to GCS anyway. We're impoverished, under employed, unemployed and most health insurance plans do not cover GCS anyway. Most non-transgender people don't have $20,000 lying around for surgery, much less transgender individuals. Many transgender individuals don't even have the money to meet the requirements for a change in documentation in states that do not require GCS. The burden placed on transgender individuals to obtain accurate identification is found nowhere else in our legal system.

Policy at the federal level is mixed as well, mostly due to the Department of Defense (DoD). While getting your name and gender changed on Department of State, Veteran's Administration, and Social Security Administration documents does not require GCS, getting either changed on DoD documents is somewhere between excruciating and impossible. Changing your gender in the DoD personnel system (DEERS) requires GCS and a convoluted series of up to 8 separate forms to different agencies. You are also not allowed to change you gender in DEERS if you were married in a non-marriage equality state.

You cannot change your name on your discharge papers (called a DD 214), as the DoD regards them as "historical records." However, in practice, the DD 214 becomes proof of ID and service. This has negative consequences, as described by a transgender veteran friend:

I had to present my DD214 to the VA when I filled out the forms to enroll in benefits. Obviously my name on the form and the DD214 didn't match. The woman working the desk blurted "Did you have the sex change!?' loudly enough the nine other people behind me stopped talking and stared... When I went back to college I kept having to explain why my DD214 doesn't match my current name whenever I applied for veteran's benefits... In Tricare (military health care for retirees) I'm still "male" because I have to update DEERS. I can only do that after I get my birth certificate changed though, but I can't because I'm from Idaho.

There are ways to skirt the edges of the system, but all too often they involve asking doctors to word letters vaguely enough to confuse bureaucrats, or to read the law with the loosest possible interpretation of phrases like "completed sex change process."

The result is a system that invites corruption, disenfranchises a class of individuals, subjects us to additional risks of violence and unemployment, and generally victimizes people already at the bottom of the societal ladder. Given the catch-22 of requiring surgery for ID, but making surgery nearly impossible to obtain (if you even wanted it in the first place), plus social injustice aspect, one has to wonder why this hasn't become a point of greater emphasis in the LGBT movement.

The legal mechanics of civil marriage is every bit as much a paperwork drill as acquiring a government issued ID.