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The Bureaucracy of Gender Transitioning

After someone comes out as trans to friends and family, there's a whole legal battle waiting: changing driver's licenses, birth certificates, insurance cards, and all the absurd requirements that go with it.
July 9, 2015, 4:00am

Photo courtesy of the author

People like to ask if I feel any different now—if the years of jabbing a needle into my thigh every two weeks have changed more than my body. I tell them, Of course they have. But transitioning isn't a clean break. My ghosts linger: I can still hear my old nickname on friends' lips before my new name tumbles out. I can still recognize myself in childhood photos and in my fifth grade journal entries. And although the name on my ID might be consistent with the one I use day-to-day, my birth certificate remains unchanged.

While being trans has permanently marked my body through scars and synthetics, the public record insists on erasure. It was difficult enough to figure out when to update my name on Facebook, when to tell my friends and professors to call me something new—but that was just the beginning. Legally transitioning has been borderline incomprehensible.

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After starting hormone therapy, my newly lowered voice and teenage-boy scruff made using my original driver's license complicated and uncomfortable. So I decided to legally change my name. The process took about two months and cost $300: I had to make an appointment with a name-change counselor, fill out the appropriate paperwork, pay to file the paperwork, submit a brief to run in a newspaper (this is often required before a court hearing, to determine the legitimacy of the request), and, finally, show up in court and hope the judge would approve my petition.

Each state (and sometimes each county within the state) has its own variation on this process, sometimes making it very difficult to file a name change. In Michigan, anyone over the age of 22 must submit their fingerprints for background checks, adding another few weeks of wait time and $100 or so to an already expensive tab. Colorado essentially bans convicted felons from changing their names at all, and other states have limitations for those on the registry for sex offenders.

Once I had my official court order stamped for a name change, I quickly realized how impossible a name is to escape: My debit card, university records, Social Security card, driver's license, insurance card—even my Qdoba membership card—all needed to be updated. Fortunately, because I did all of this at the age of 19, I had few bills or properties in my name. But even two years in, I still have some accounts under the name on my birth certificate.

This process, while frustrating, confusing, and costly, is standard for a legal procedure. It's not much different if you change your last name after marriage. What's not standard is the process for changing the gender marker on a state ID or birth certificate, which, in most states, requires a signed affidavit confirming sex-reassignment surgery (SRS).

Most types of SRS are prohibitively expensive (ranging from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands, rarely covered by insurance) and almost all require some sort of approval by a psychologist. It's both costly and, frankly, insulting—taking my B-cup down to nothing necessitates psychological evaluation, yet getting implants to bring me up to a double D would carry no such restriction. Plus, making SRS a prerequisite for gender-marker changes not only ties bodies to genders (by this logic, women with mastectomies due to breast cancer are no longer women) but also legally excludes trans people who either cannot or choose not to physically transition.

The author's driver's license, student ID, and birth certificate—all of which show different combinations of his name and gender marker

The gender marker on my ID has not been changed. To do so, I would have to undergo some form of SRS and then send the signed affidavit to an office in Michigan, alongside my name-change court order and a petition to "correct" my birth certificate. I'd then take the new birth certificate to the Secretary of State (the Michigan version of a DMV) and pay to have my driver's license replaced. It's a complicated, lengthy, bureaucratic process.

While several states do not explicitly require SRS, or like Hawaii and Connecticut, have removed SRS as a requirement, the law is often vague and difficult to interpret. Other times, it's outright offensive: Louisiana's law states that "The court shall require [that] the petitioner was properly diagnosed as a transsexual or pseudo-hermaphrodite, that sex reassignment or corrective surgery has been performed..."

I am troubled by the idea of surgery. It's a procedure I want, if only to stop binding my chest with tight spandex every day (I haven't had the lung capacity to take a deep breath since 2012). But I don't like the idea that I have to cut into my body to live in it.

Complying with the legal system takes considerable time and energy to even figure out, and to make things more complex, federal gender-maker laws (for passports) only require a letter from a doctor. That means it's possible to carry three forms of entirely legal and entirely different identification. When I update my passport, it will list my name and gender marker as Alexander, M, while my driver's license says Alexander, F, and my birth certificate still reads Alexandra, F. When I changed the name on my student ID, the office wanted to charge me to replace the photo—so while it says Alexander, M, the Justin Bieber haircut and baby face in the photo draws double takes.

Consistency in documentation is important. When I notified my university's financial aid office about my name change, I realized that they had neglected to change the name on my FAFSA, but had altered the gender marker. Because all males over 18 in the United States must be registered for the draft (or have a legitimate exemption on file) to receive federal funding, I began to receive very angry letters from the Selective Service addressed to a Mr. Alexandra Pines, threatening jail time or a hefty fine. After a few months, I sent them a note with photocopies of my name change court order, state ID, and birth certificate, explaining the mix-up. The letters, eventually, stopped.

Even now, the TSA pulls me aside for additional pat-downs during airport security because of "incongruities" on my ID.

Before I was able to change the name and picture on my driver's license, my trans status became public every time I used my debit card or walked into a building at my university. Buying Hot Pockets at the grocery store became an exercise in choosing the least transphobic-looking cashier and I'd get questions about my genitals while paying for clothes at the mall. Even now, the TSA pulls me aside for additional pat-downs during airport security because of "incongruities" on my ID.

The transphobia I have experienced has never turned violent, in part because I'm a white guy with access to trans-friendly medical care, including hormones. Many trans people cannot say the same—this year alone has seen the murders of at least nine trans women, many of them of color. Being forcibly outed as trans by the name on a credit card or gender marker on a driver's license thus becomes, in some cases, life-threatening.

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But as much as going through the legal transition is, in many ways, necessary, each step takes an emotional toll. The legal system asks us, again and again, to prove that we are not just "making our genders up." At every step of the way, from access to hormones to name change hearings, we are required to justify our existence.

The "classic" transgender narrative becomes a useful shortcut to navigate the process, especially the psychological evaluations that are mandatory for most stages of physical transition (which, in turn, often happen before legal action). I have insisted numbly, over and over, that I grew up "trapped in the wrong body" to puzzled bouncers or doctors who see my ID or medical history. I hate this narrative—someone else's story mapped into my skin. It demands a breaking point, a split from a former self, as if the person I was for the first 19 years of my life never existed, or was somehow lying by using a different name and pronouns. I hate the vocabulary of this narrative, how it necessitates words like "change" (as in, "now that you've had your change," as if my body, needles or no, will ever stop changing) or "transition," which is, admittedly, a step up from "transformation." Trans people aren't Decepticons.

The trans body is a public one. Few other identities that I can think of require as much paperwork, as many mandatory therapy sessions, or legislation to comfortably use a toilet in public.

The typical transgender narrative allows for no uncertainty, sticking to a rigid binary of boy versus girl that many trans folks themselves fight against. In order to get on hormones, I found myself compelled to list trite clichés about preferring Batman to Barbie as a kid and always wanting to wear "boy" pants instead of the "girl" ones that emphasized my hips. By placing psychologists in the role of gatekeepers, the system transforms therapy from a space of figuring things out into an audition for the part of Real Trans Person.

The trans body is a public one. Few other identities that I can think of require as much paperwork, as many mandatory therapy sessions, or legislation to comfortably use a toilet in public. I've found that my own gender identity has been supported in part because I don't look trans—on the day of my name change hearing, the judge merely looked at my suit and my five-months-on-testosterone face, then back down at my paperwork before saying "good luck, son," and signing off. Had I shown up in a skirt and heels, I can't help but wonder if the petition would have been denied; according to the current system, trans boys in dresses might not be "trans enough" to change their names or gender markers.

When the legal system inherently only values trans people who adhere to certain standards of cisness, any rejection of those standards, by choice or otherwise, often leads to violence. In my case, that violence is limited to the violence of erasure. To get an "M" on my driver's license, I will have to formally amend my birth certificate to read Alexander Cameron Pines, male—removing any record that Alexandra Catherine, female, ever existed.

There are days when it is tempting to pretend that I was born a flat-chested boy. But I'm tired of pretending. I want to believe that Alexandra was just as genuine and real as Alexander is today, that I can recite my old softball cheers and show friends pictures of baby me in a strawberry-patterned dress holding a wooden sword at age three without it invalidating my current identity.

My ghosts, painful as they might sometimes be, are just as much a part of me as the hair on my face and vibration in my chest when I speak. So for now, the name on my birth certificate is going to stay.

Follow Alexander Pines on Twitter.