Impending "Realness:" Transgender Communities Dealt a Blow By REAL ID
Recently election reformers have focused a great deal of attention on the real potential for a rollback in voting rights with the flurry of highly restrictive photo ID laws moving across state legislatures. Adding to an already layered system, there have been serious restrictions tacked on the franchise in states like Georgia and Indiana, while Wisconsin's Governor Doyle keeps the disastrous effects of a five-time proposed photo ID bill at bay with his veto pen.
Let's hope he has enough ink.
Rather than protecting eligible voters, it is estimated that photo ID requirements at the polls will cost millions their vote, most of them elderly, people of color, low-income or recently relocated. The people with the most to say this election season may well lose their vote -- if they haven't already -- in the next presidential election, thanks to their public servants in the U.S. House and Senate.
After the passage of the REAL ID Act -- a dangerous add-on to an $82 billion military spending bill in 2005 -- the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform recommended using REAL ID for voter identification at the polls. Election reformers and civil rights advocates responded with a swift outcry. They did so again a few weeks ago, when Senator Mitch McConnell tried to attach a REAL ID requirement for voters to the immigration bill. The challenge continues as photo ID bills sweep state legislatures, and as states move to implement REAL ID legislation by 2008. Hurricane survivors, African Americans, Latinos, grandmas and grandpas, young people -- you might have to kiss even more of your rights goodbye. That should scare you.
But there is a group of people left out of this debate (and marginalized in so many others) which will feel the impact of restrictive voter ID requirements, and REAL ID, intensely: the transgender community. Obtaining identification that properly reflects one's gender identity has long been a critical, significant challenge for transgender and gender non-conforming people. It's a challenge that is often compounded by prejudice, discrimination by race or national origin and, frequently, dire economic hardship. For transgender people, the cornerstones of economic stability -- high school and college education, adequate housing, secure jobs, living wages, healthcare, and overall protection under the law -- is often unattainable.
In fact, the financial burden of acquiring identification that accurately reflects one's gender can be insurmountable. The price of the documentation required to obtain a government-issued photo ID is considerable: a certified copy of a birth certificate costs from $10 to $45; a passport costs $85; and certified naturalization papers cost $19.95. The irony of the ID process is that in order to obtain one, usually you have to have another.
So, for transgender people, the REAL ID Act reads immediately as an onerous piece of legislation. Internationally, the Act places further barriers on people seeking asylum, providing asylum officers broad discretion in requesting that "the applicant should provide evidence which corroborates otherwise credible testimony"-- including proof of persecution and additional proof of identification from those in their home country. Focusing domestically, REAL ID imposes regulations on the design, issuance and management of state driver's licenses, which, for all practical purposes, turn your drivers' license into a national identity card. Your license/REAL ID will have to meet standards of validity established by the Department of Homeland Security, including: name, birth date, sex, ID number, a digital photograph, address, and a DHS-approved "common machine-readable technology."
States will be required to make electronic copies of all documents available in a national database to an undefined group of people, including law enforcement officials, for at least 10 years. This has created a huge tax burden on many states -- estimates of the cost of compliance range from $80 to $100 million. But states are receiving little to no financial support from the federal government. While the legislation is written so that states can opt-out, it would ultimately prove impossible since the federally approved ID card will be required for air travel, to open a bank account, collect Social Security payments, receive Medicaid or take advantage of nearly any government service.
Of particular importance to transgender people is the fact that the process of changing sex designation on birth certificates, driver's licenses, or social security cards currently varies from state to state, and state agency to state agency. In most states, unlike the Social Security Administration, which requires proof of "genital surgery" in order to change sex designation on social security cards, the Department of Motor Vehicles requirements are to obtain a doctor's letter. These varying requirements have provided opportunities for many transgender people to change their gender on their DMV identification, so that they can work and go to school with identification that reflects their gender identity. However, since many transgender people have not had "genital surgery" -- whether due to exorbitant costs, medical ineligibility or simple preference -- they cannot change their SSA sex designation.
Given this inconsistency, it is easy to see that cross-checking DMV and SSA databases will result in significant problems for transgender people, as has already been documented in a number of states, including New York, Maryland and Missouri. As thousands of immigrants in New York began receiving letters challenging their license status, hundreds of transgender people started receiving letters as well due to the disparity in legal understanding and codification of sex designation between the two databases. Not long after the REAL ID Act passed in 2005, the DMV in Missouri sent out letters to transgender people who had already successfully changed the sex designation on their driver's licenses stating that they would have to return with additional medical evidence or their licenses would be suspended in 30 days.
REAL ID's implementation will result in an even graver consequence in storing information not only through paper-based national databases, but also in the technology-based requirement and scanning of a national identification card. The cross-checking process between the DMV and SSA will be used in an "Employment Verification System" currently being tested by the Department of Homeland Security. Ultimately, this system will result in outing thousands of transgender people to employers -- or potential employers -- an action with devastating consequences, given that very few states have anti-discrimination policies that include transgender people.
Of course, all this has implications for voting. After the 2004 elections, HAVA legislation mandated ID requirements for all first time voters that register by mail, and almost 23 states have an additional voter ID requirement. The most onerous requirements are in Georgia, Indiana, and Missouri, where only a state-issued photo ID is acceptable at the polling place. Compounded by the fact that an estimated 30 percent of all transgender people have been in prison -- three times the national average and including a disproportionate number of transgender women of color -- and the impact of draconian felon disfranchisement laws, transgender people will continue to face numerous barriers to participating in our democracy.
The impact of REAL ID on transgender communities, and millions of people across the country, should raise the concern of many in the advocacy community, among our elected leaders and in the media. There is real danger to REAL ID, and concern will quickly become alarm. The far-reaching impact of this legislation is chilling, to say the least. It has created an important bridge -- between communities of immigrant groups, civil rights groups, LGBT groups and anti-poverty groups -- calling for fundamental principles of privacy, fairness and opportunity, political voice and justice for all people. And it has sparked an insurgent wake-up call to create an even wider movement to challenge the pervasive and continual government-imposed criminalization of the lives and bodies of the many.
Cole Krawitz is Communications and Events Associate at Demos and a member of the Board of Advisors for the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). Cole has written for AlterNet, New Voices Magazine, Clamor Magazine, and Jewish Currents Magazine. For more information on transgender issues visit www.srlp.org and www.transgenderlawcenter.org.