Forced out: A
real ID problem for trans people

Forced out: A
            real ID problem for trans people

I started work
with a new employer right after transitioning to live as a
female in 2002. My previous employer had made it clear that
they were not going to accept my gender transition.

It was also the
start of my one-year “real life experience” of
living in my true gender. RLE, as it's called, is
one step in the guidelines for gender transition set
by medical professionals. It's intended to serve as a
sort of trial one must pass before receiving the medical
letter of approval required for sex reassignment surgery.
With management at my new job fully aware of the
“old” (male) me, I figured my
transgender status might never be an issue.

I quickly filled
out the Blue Cross application, excited about the
prospect of having health insurance in my new name for the
first time. Yet my excitement quickly faded a few days
later when Blue Cross called me. "Ms. Herman, there is
a person with the same last name in our database who
has a male first name. Do you know this person?"

Argh. I had to tell them the truth—I had had
Blue Cross coverage as my prior self. "Well, Ms. Herman, we
can't code you as female in our system until you've
had 'the surgery.'" I tried to explain the hardship
that having an m on my HMO card would present. I
would have to out myself to every doctor’s
billing office, explaining that they would need to
code me as male in their systems to be sure that their
health claims for me were processed.

representative went off to confer with her underwriting
department and then called back. "Sorry, we must code
you as male until surgery. And by the way, just a
reminder, your surgery will not be covered by
insurance." Insult to injury.

My new employer
accepted my Social Security card (in my old name),
driver’s license (old name, gender identity, and
picture) and the court’s name change order as
proof for the I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification
form, although they did make it clear that they needed to
see my new identification the moment I received it. I was
very lucky. Other employers might have declined to
employ me until both documents had been changed, a
process that can take years.

Not too long
after that I encountered the Social Security Number
Verification System. Employers have the option of verifying
not only the Social Security number that employees
provide, but also the date of birth and gender against
the Social Security Administration database. The SSA
has gender in their database? Who knew? It doesn't show on
the card. Again I was lucky that management knew
of my transition.

Around that time,
a trans friend who was not out received a call from her
employer’s human resources department. "Ms. Smith,
there’s a discrepancy on your employment
application that we'd like to discuss." Fortunately,
after outing herself she was allowed her to keep her
job. Other less-aware employers might have fired
her—quite legally, if not ethically—for

I hustled off to
the Social Security office with my name-change order in
hand. Social Security could change my name, they said, but
could not change my gender until I had had
“genital surgery.” Sigh. 

My experience at
the Department of Motors Vehicles was no better.
"I’m sorry, Ms. Herman, we can change your name and
your picture, but we cannot change your gender marker
without both proof of surgery and a birth certificate
showing your new gender. Things have gotten a lot more
stringent since 9/11, you know.” Me, a
potential terrorist? Unbelievable!

I was very lucky
to have been born in a state that issues (upon proof of
surgery, of course) a completely new birth certificate
showing no trace of the old gender. People born in my
current home state can only get an amended birth
certificate, which effectively outs them to whoever sees
it. Worse, there are some states where one can never, ever
change one’s birth certificate. Trans people
born in those states are stuck with a birth
certificate that does not match their gender
identity—and thus may be stuck with the same
discrepancy on other forms of ID issued to agree with
the birth certificate.

A few of my
transgender friends were able to obtain a driver’s
license showing their correct gender marker without
having had surgery, either because the license was
obtained before requirements tightened or because the
clerk had innocently “corrected” the gender
marker to match the person’s presentation. A
potential nightmare is looming for them, however. That
nightmare will be triggered by a new program called Real

The Real ID
Act—frequently written in all caps as REAL ID,
although it is not an acronym—was passed in
2005 as an add-on to a military spending bill. A
response to legitimate concerns about terrorists using false
identification documents, the act has the effect of
standardizing state drivers licenses as a national ID,
which means that more onerous requirements for
gender marker changes will imposed on all 50 states. It
also requires that electronic copies of documents used to
obtain the license be verified by the state and made
available in a federal database.

For transgender
people, this could result in authorities across the
country having easy access to evidence of a prior gender and
of current surgical status. Real ID is raising
concerns for other people too. For more on the act,
see NCTE Advisory Board Member Cole Krawitz’s excellent article
on the Demos Web site

another nightmare looming. The Department of Homeland
Security is proposing that employers clear up
mismatches with the Social Security Number
Verification system in 14 to 60 days or face charges of
having “constructive knowledge” of
having unauthorized workers on the payroll. Of course,
no bureaucracy is guaranteed to work in 14 to 60 days,
so employers may feel forced to fire employees with
gender mismatches simply to avoid the risk of

When it comes
right down to it, all of this fuss is caused by the
perceived need to have gender markers on identification
documents. But how important is that, really? If the
goal is to collect information that identifies the
individual, then either the gender marker should be
expanded to include not just "male" and "female" but also
other possible answers, or it should be removed altogether.
As things stands now, it is clearly ineffective and
harmful as an identifier for transgender people.