When Visibility Is Not A Choice

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March 30, 2018
LL Legal Assistant Alexis Paige

This Saturday we celebrate Transgender Day of Visibility. Often when we talk about transgender visibility as activists and community members, we focus on the corners of our lives that still require illumination; but what we don’t give space to are the times when visibility itself becomes glaring and leaves us uncomfortably exposed. 

What happens when people are forced to be visible because their birth assigned sex on legal identity documents does not match their gender identity?

Back in the early days of my transition, I moved to another state. This, as many other transgender people will appreciate, is especially difficult for us.

While I did have my driver’s license corrected to my gender identity in my former state, I had not yet corrected the gender marker on my other identity documents.

Once I arrived at my new home, I proceeded to do all those things one does when they move, including of course, transferring my driver's license. This is where I encountered my first difficulties of having mismatched documents. When the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) clerk attempted to process my information, the system couldn’t verify my identity because the gender marker on my driver’s license and the gender maker associated with my social security number didn’t line up.

I tried to explain to the clerk the reason for the mismatch was because I was trans and I had not been able to correct all of my legal documents before I had moved.

While the clerk seemed supportive, they did not know of a way to override the issue in the computer, so they asked other staff members if they knew of a solution. With the entire present staff unable to accommodate the mismatched gender markers, the DMV supervisor became involved.

During the entire, drawn-out experience, it became increasingly clear that everyone else in the DMV office was listening in on the clerks’ conversations about me. If I hadn’t felt alienated enough, knowing that a room full of strangers were now aware of the intimate details of my identity only furthered the point.

In the end, the clerks were not able to solve the issue, and informed me that in order for them to process my application I would have to return with a letter from a doctor that verified I had medically transitioned.

This was not the only problem I ran into because of mismatched identity documents, but I was relatively lucky when it came to my experience at the DMV. I faced minor embarrassments and awkward conversations, and then, within a couple months I had my gender marker corrected on all my documents.

Stacie Ray was not as lucky as I was. She was born in Ohio — one of only three states where transgender people, whose birth assigned sex on their birth certificate does not match their gender identity, cannot currently correct your birth certificate — experienced far worse than a few delays and awkward conversations.

Stacie was outed at work against her wishes due to mismatched identity documents and faced severe harassment. After reporting these incidents, management took no action to rectify the problem.

Having been outed due to being unable to correct her birth certificate, Ms. Ray was eventually forced to leave her job for her mental health and safety. When she applied for a new job, she was denied the required clearance by TSA, who told her that the only solution was to nullify her correct documents because it would be impossible to update her birth certificate.

Stacie is not alone in the harassment and issues caused by mismatched identity documents. The 2015 US Trans Survey shows nearly 1 in 3 transgender people who have been forced to show mismatched identity documents have been verbally harassed, denied benefits or services, asked to leave, or assaulted.

Lambda Legal fights for that 1 in three.

That is why we have filed a lawsuit, with co-counsels American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, against the Director of the Ohio Department of Health, the Chief of the Ohio Office of Vital Statistics, and the Ohio State Registrar.

We are taking this fight to Ohio, because their discriminatory policies currently prevent transgender people from correcting their birth certificates. More than a simple identity document, birth certificates are a necessary tool which we require to navigate through life as full, legal citizens.

Whether you’re applying for a driver’s license, school, or a marriage certificate, you need an accurate birth certificate.

This lawsuit in Ohio is the latest in Lambda Legal’s efforts to ensure the identities of transgender people in Puerto Rico and Idaho–where we were recently victorious in convincing an Idaho U.S. District Court Judge to order state officials to allow transgender people born in Idaho to correct their gender markers on the birth certificates. This is a huge win for advancing transgender civil rights and catching up to the rest of the country.

In this, and many other areas, Lambda Legal will continue to lead the way to ensure that all transgender people are legally recognized for the gender that we are. We are your lawyers, and we will not stop fighting for your rights.