Bureaucratic Identity

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday September 21, 2011
Share this Post:
Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

Easily one of the most challenging and difficult things for a transgender or gender variant person to deal with is government paperwork. No matter what we know we are, what our friends and family may know us as, and in some cases, regardless of any medical intervention, we still have to deal with what the government says we are.

It can be a difficult process to get such paperwork updated in the case of a gender transition. Some areas will not update your paperwork to reflect a gender change without a letter from your doctor claiming you had genital reassignment surgery. Even if you update with one agency, you may still have to get updates from any number of others - and their rules may not be the same as any other place you visit.

The needs of the DMV vary from state to state, and differ from the Social Security administration, the U.S. State Department, and any number of other agencies. Some may require you to provide documents from schools, employers, and others, which may require changes in paperwork from any number of private entities before getting official paperwork updated.

In the worst of cases, you might have an experience like Amber Yust, who received a letter from the clerk who handled her name and gender change paperwork at the California DMV in 2010. The letter told her that her "very evil decision" to change her gender would lead her "straight to hell."

For those who prefer to avoid the male or female dichotomy altogether, you can quickly find this impossible when it comes to the government. In most cases, gender is not an "opt out" on government forms. The REAL ID act, passed in 2006, mandated standards for state driver's licenses that required a gender designation be present - but also did not give much in the way of allowing for changes or updates to same.

While REAL ID remains controversial and many states have pushed to block implementation of same, gender remains a common constant for most paperwork. You simply have to choose one or the other.

In short, it can be a frustrating, humiliating, and even frightening experience.

I count myself somewhat lucky. While I'm sure there are still bits of paperwork floating through the byzantine labyrinths of the federal government that list me as male - and may even show a name long-since discarded - the majority of my paperwork is clear as to what my name is and what gender I am. School records as far back as my elementary school days reflect my correct name and gender, and I've a wallet full of things that show who I really, truly am. I also know that I may be more fortunate than most.

With all this in mind, there's been a whole lot of news lately – Google's insistence on "real names" to use their Google+ social network notwithstanding - that encourages me.

For one, Amber Yust, who I mentioned above, received a $55,000 settlement for her case against the State of California and Thomas Demartini, the former DMV employee who wrote to her. Let's hope that this will help keep the private information of people like Amber where it belongs: private.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Administration has reversed a policy from the Bush administration that required the SSA to send a "no match" letter to employers if the gender on an employee's W-2 form did not match Social Security records. In 2010 alone 711,488 "no match" letters regarding gender were sent.

The policy change means that transgender people who may still have an old gender marker erroneously floating around with the SSA will not face possible outing and other difficulties on the job.

The SSA, however, still requires a surgical letter to get a gender marker changed, which can and will be an issue for those who cannot obtain surgery, or who simply do not want such. For that matter, if you do not want any gender designation, you will still be out of luck with the SSA - or other US state and federal bureaucracies.

Which leads to one more ray of sunshine, this time from down under. Marcelle, a transgender woman from Canberra, has caused the Australian passport office to reverse their decision to reject her application to change her passport to reflect her female gender.

When she initially did this, the Australian passport office resisted, claiming that her birth certificate said she was male, and that she did not meet "humanitarian guidelines." In her appeal, it was revealed that there were no such guidelines, and she has been granted her passport.

With her victory, Australian policy for passports is changing, meaning she and others will not have to present a letter from a medical practitioner for their passport.

Perhaps more importantly, those who do not identify with male or female will be able to check an "X." This is one of the first modern instances where gender has been wholly optional via a government.

Will we see this in America?

A little more than a year ago, U.S. Passports changed to provide a physicians' certification for gender change declaring the applicant had "undergone appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition." 

It does not require any certification that the applicant had undergone genital reassignment surgery, which is a big change from the past. It's still not a move away from gender altogether, but it is a step in the right direction.

It will still be a long trek to get past gender markers altogether, but it's a start. The SSA changes are another baby step. Let's hope for more in the future.

Gwen Smith still has her elementary school diploma. You can find her on the web at www.gwensmith.com.