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Forced out: A
real ID problem for trans people

Forced out: A
real ID problem for trans people


Changing one's name and gender marker privately can be tricky if you're transgender, and a new law designed to thwart terrorists is about to make it a lot trickier. Part 10 in The Advocate's ongoing Transgender 101 series

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.

The 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 deception.

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 ID.

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.

There's 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 penalties.

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.

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Joanne Herman