Voter ID laws highlight another problem — navigating the government while trans

A Williams Institute report earlier this year estimated that up to 34,000 transgender Americans could be disenfranchised by voter ID laws, primarily in ‘strict ID’ states that require people to furnish identification to vote. That’s a whole lot of voter identification law bycatch — these laws, ostensibly preventing ‘fraud’ but really profiling people of color, didn’t intend to snag trans people, but they’re doing a mighty fine job. In the conversation about voter identification and disenfranchisement, numbers like these are both infuriating and heartbreaking, especially when two of the states involved, Virginia and Wisconsin, are considered swing states. This is personally disenfranchising, but it’s also the kind of thing that remaps the electoral landscape.

There’s no reason it has to be this way. Voter identification laws on their own should be struck down because they are unconscionable, but this situation highlights another serious problem: For transgender people in some states, getting updated identification is difficult and sometimes impossible. That’s dehumanizing.

It’s hard to explain what it feels like to carry identification that doesn’t accurately reflect who you are. This isn’t just an administrative problem, but a deeply personal one. We change our names not for social convenience, but because names have power, and they matter, and they affect the way people interact with us. When you carry identification with the wrong name and/or gender on it, it’s not just frustrating and annoying, but also deeply humiliating, and sometimes dangerous.

Likewise, it’s hard to articulate the feeling of opening the first envelope with an updated ID in it, of hearing a TSA agent use the right name when she hands back your ID and says ‘have a nice flight,’ of opening a utility bill that doesn’t have the name of a dead stranger on it.

Across the board, changing your name is expensive in the United States. Between fees for a court order and the costs of issuing brand-new identifications, it cost close to $1,000 for me to do it in California. That is a nontrivial amount of money, and a nearly insurmountable one for low-income trans people. (California and many states offer fee waivers for legal name changes, but not everyone knows about them or meets the sometimes bizarre income standards.) It also requires dealing with hostile administrators, people who don’t know the policies of their own agencies, and other myriad unnecessary roadblocks.

But some states make this harder than others, especially when it comes to updating gender markers. In California, to change gender markers on identification you have to submit a form, or a doctor’s letter, that basically says ‘yes hello this person is transgender, please update the gender marker on their identification because it is wrong, thank you.’ That’s also, incidentally, all you need to do to change your passport, thanks to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who updated the procedure for making changes to names and gender markers on passports during her time there, thus making it much easier for trans people to get passports.

However, in some states, like, say, Wisconsin, you can’t just get a letter from your care provider saying you are trans and receiving ‘appropriate clinical treatment.’ You have to get a letter documenting your gender confirmation surgery if you want the gender marker on your ID changed. Not all trans people get surgery, some put it off until later in transition, others flat-out cannot afford it (insurance doesn’t always cover it, and uninsurance/underinsurance are common in the trans community). Requiring gender confirmation surgery to change gender markers suggests that genitals make the gender, which is gross, and it makes accessing updated ID contingent on economic privilege. But it does more than that: It also effectively acts as coerced sterilization by holding the promise of identification over the heads of trans people until they undergo a surgical procedure that removes their ovaries or testes, making it impossible to have biological children (unless you bank eggs, sperm, or embryos beforehand, and ideally before starting hormones).

The state in this case is deciding what makes people ‘trans enough,’ by arbitrary cis standards of gender and what trans bodies are supposed to look like. For trans people who get gender confirmation surgery, this is an offensive and annoying step in getting new identification. For trans people who can’t get it, or don’t want it, it presents an insurmountable barrier and a policing of their very identity that adds to their experience of gender dysphoria.

When it comes to voter ID laws, this has huge implications. For trans people able to afford the process of updating their identification who also meet the cis standard of what ‘trans’ looks like, updating identification and voter registration can be relatively straightforward, albeit expensive and time consuming, though still there’s also a chance that they will be harassed at the polls on the basis of assumptions about their appearance. For those who cannot, though, they’re forced to use old identification and run the risk of being denied the right to vote, because Amelia Sandoz looks nothing like Jorge Sandoz and poll workers refuse to believe they are the same person.

There’s an easy fix to the voter ID problem: Drop voter ID laws.

There’s also an easy fix to the ID update problem for the trans community: Adopt a uniform, trans-friendly standard for updating government identification, make it a straightforward administrative process, waive fees for updating government identification with correct name and/or gender information, and consider dropping gender markers from identification when they don’t serve a function. Because no one’s identity should be dependent upon economic status and meeting society’s expectations for what gender looks like.

Image: Party, Tim, Flickr