Wonky Wednesday: Identity Documents for Transgender People

By Chris Quach, Jamie Grant Research Fellow

190px-Us-passportThink of where your driver’s license is right now. How about your birth certificate? Social Security card? Passport? Wherever these documents may be, you can probably rest assured that the information on one matches up with the others. It is also likely that if any of these documents need to be evaluated by an authority or agency (for example, if you were opening a bank account or traveling internationally), this review would not threaten your economic, social or physical well-being. For transgender people, this is not the case.

Possessing accurate and consistent identity documents is essential to functioning on a basic level socially and economically in our country. Access to employment, housing, healthcare and travel can all hinge on having appropriate documentation. Yet transgender people often encounter a myriad of policies related to identity documents that work against them. These include rules that require surgical procedures as proof of transition, which many transgender people do not want or can’t afford. As a result, they often struggle with acquiring updated documents that are accurate and consistent with their gender identity.

According to the joint report from the Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, respondents’ level of success with changing the gender on their documents often depended on the document and what surgeries they had undergone (if any) to qualify for the gender change. Respondents that had some type of surgical procedure were able to change their gender marker over six times more frequently than those without surgery. However, the costs of transition-related surgeries, rarely covered by health insurance, are beyond the reach of most transgender people, and some prefer to not have surgery because they do not feel it is necessary to live with their true gender identity.

Living with gender-incongruent documents can even lead to potentially harmful consequences. Whenever people with incongruent identity documents must produce them, they are potentially outed as transgender, whether to an employer, clerk, police officer, or airport personnel. Also, the NTDS found that 40% of respondents who presented gender incongruent identification reported harassment and 3% reported being assaulted or attacked.

Thankfully, some policies regarding gender change on identity documents have changed for the better in recent years, significantly helping transgender people acquire consistent identity documents. In 2010, the U.S. Department of State eliminated the requirement of documentation of sex reassignment surgery to obtain a gender change on one’s passport. The U.S. Social Security Administration would eliminate the same requirement for changing gender markers on Social Security records in June of this year. The District of Columbia also recently passed a bill that helps transgender individuals obtain birth certificates with their correct gender and name. These policy updates are a tremendous help to transgender people attempting to align their gender identity with the necessary documents.