SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Lauren Grey didn't think much about the gender recorded on her Illinois driver's license until she went to test-drive a new car. Although she had been living as a woman for months and easily obtained a license with her new name and a picture reflecting her feminine appearance, Grey's ID still identified her as male, puzzling the salesmen and prompting uncomfortable questions.
"They are like, 'This doesn't match.' Then you have to go into the story: 'I was born male, but now I'm not,'" said Grey, 38, a graphic designer living in suburban Chicago. "And they are like, 'What does that mean?' It was super embarrassing." Similarly awkward conversations ensued when she tried to rent an apartment, went to bars or was taken out of airport security lines for inspection.
Most U.S. residents don't think twice about the gender printed on their government-issued documents. But those "M'' or "F'' markers — and the legal and administrative prerequisites for switching them on passports, birth certificates and other forms of identification — are a source of anxiety and, even, discrimination for transgender individuals.
The rules vary from state to state, agency to agency and even clerk to clerk. But a transgender applicant generally has been required to submit both a court order approving the gender change and a letter from a surgeon certifying that the person underwent irreversible sex reassignment surgery before obtaining a new document.
Over the last few years, though, the emerging movement for transgender rights has been quietly pressing the issue, persuading state lawmakers and federal and state agencies to simplify the lengthy and often costly process. Advocates recorded their latest victory Friday, when the Social Security Administration announced that it would no longer require proof of surgery to alter the gender identification of individuals in its computers and records.
The move mirrors similar actions by the U.S. State Department, which amended its passport application policies three years ago to do away with the sex reassignment surgery requirement, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which last year did the same for green cards, work permits and other documents it issues.
"Most people may not see this as a big deal, but transgender people know that this seemingly small technical change will protect their privacy and give them more control over their own lives," Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said. "Since 9/11, it's become ... incredibly important to have accurate and consistent identification. Without it, you can't open a bank account, you can't use a credit card, you can't apply for a loan, you can't get a job, you can't vote, you can't get insurance."
As a result of lawsuits and lobbying, about half of U.S. states — most recently Illinois, Alaska, Virginia and Idaho — now allow residents to revise the gender designations on their driver's licenses without first undergoing surgery or getting a judge's approval. Applicants instead must provide a letter from a health professional stating they have received counseling, hormone therapy or another form of gender-transition treatment.
Holding mismatched identification also exposes transgender people to the threat of discrimination or violence, advocates say. A 2008 survey of 6,450 transgender people conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 40 percent of respondents had been harassed after presenting an ID that conflicted with how they looked. Three percent reported being attacked, and 15 percent said they had been refused service.
State motor vehicle and vital records departments do not keep count of the number of people who seek to amend the gender markers on driver's licenses and birth certificates each year. The Williams Institute, a UCLA-based think tank, estimates that 0.3 percent of the adult population in the United States identifies as transgender, or about 698,000 people.