Trans Trucker Can't Get Ga. Driver's License
State Refuses to Change Gender on License Before Sex-Change Surgery
Melissa White is caught between two worlds.
As a transgendered woman who moved from Illinois to Georgia last month in search of a job, White believed that the legal changes she made in Illinois - including her valid and "sexually correct" driver's license - would be honored "with full faith and credit" in Georgia.
But last week, the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicle Safety office in Sandy Springs refused to honor the Illinois driver's license designating White as a woman, and issued her a Georgia driver's license with the "dreaded M" designation, she said.
"After all the discrimination I've dealt with, this is the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles telling me what they want me to be, not who I am," White said.
A police officer followed her out of the parking lot "and all the way to the county line," she said. "Their message was very clear."
DMV officials at the Sandy Springs office did not respond to interview requests.
As an out-of-work truck driver, White must have a valid driver's license to apply for positions in Georgia.
"But the driver's license they issued me raises too many questions and issues for most people," and is effectively keeping her out of work since the current Georgia license shows her as a woman, but proclaims her a man, she said.
As a pre-operative transgendered person, White said she needs the license to get a job to pay for the expensive sex-reassignment surgery she wants. But getting the license requires the surgery, Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles Safety officials said.
White identifies as a woman, has been taking hormone therapy since 1998, and had her name and driver's license legally changed in Illinois.
"I'm caught in the middle because they tell me 'this is the law,'" she said. "I can't go forward, and I can't go back."
Georgia activist Monica Helms was issued a driver's license with a female designation under the same guidelines that refused another transgendered woman's request.
DMV: Sex change first
The DMV customer service telephone line and Web site confirmed the agency's policy: Documentation of a sex change is required to switch the sex designation on the license.
The policy "leaves most transgender women in a lurch, because many don't get the surgery," said Monica Helms, executive director of Trans=Action, a statewide transgender advocacy group.
"There is no Georgia law mandating this," Helms said.
Helms, who is a pre-operative transgender woman like White, was successfully issued a Georgia driver's license designating her as a woman, but only after challenging DMV officials when they told her that listing her as a man was the law.
"It is an internal policy, and one that is completely within their power to correct," Helms said.
Trans=Action plans to attend monthly DMV policy meetings during the next few months to raise the issue and request a policy change, Helms said.
Harriet Taylor, chief license examiner for the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles, upheld the policy in White's case after White and Helms took their appeal to the DMV headquarters in Conyers.
"When we went in, no one would see us," White said. "We asked to speak to someone in a private office or conference room and three different people refused us.
"They made us discuss our appeal in the lobby, clearly an intimidation move," she said.
White was eventually referred to Taylor, "who was much nicer, but there's not much she can do."
"My heart went out to this person just trying to live and survive," Taylor said. "But the policy is pretty clear."
Taylor has facilitated numerous licenses for people who have completed surgical sex reassignment, but White was the first non-surgical transgender case she has seen, she said.
Georgia's requirement to complete sex reassignment surgery before reassigning gender on driver's licenses puts it in the minority of states, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
"In the majority of states, a person can change their gender on their license with a physician's letter saying they are in the process of gender transition," said Liz Seaton, a deputy field director for HRC.
Illinois is one of the states that requires only a name change and a physician's letter.
JoAnn Fraser, a transgender woman living outside Peoria, changed the sex on her driver's license "with no problem," she said. "Illinois is very progressive on transgender issues."
Fraser competes as a professional runner in women's events in Illinois "and it's been fine," she said. "I guess it wouldn't be in Georgia."
The problem with requiring transgendered women to complete sex reassignment surgery, according to Helms, is that many choose not to have the surgery.
Psychologists point out that it is not the surgery that defines a transgendered person, but how they feel about themselves and how they present themselves to the world.
"Decades ago to be transgender - then we used the term transsexual, to change sexes - most people had surgery. But there is a lot of variability now," said Dr. Barbara Rubin, an Atlanta psychologist whose private practice includes transgendered patients.
"Some decide they don't need it, they use hormones and plastic surgery," she said. "Some do hormones and no plastic surgery or sex reassignment surgery."
The term transgendered can apply to a range of people, from those who prefer to present an androgynous front all the way through to people who have complete sex reassignment surgery, Rubin said.
"Being transgender is in some ways the opposite of coming out as gay," Rubin said. "It's about wanting to blend in and not stand out. Having a driver's license say that you are not the gender you believe you are is a huge affront."
The Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund is representing a Virginia transgendered woman who was denied a new birth certificate.
While the documents are different, some of the legal premises are the same, according to Greg Nevins, staff attorney in Lambda's Atlanta-based southern regional office.
"This is a common occurrence and a major concern," Nevins said. "But it's somewhat of a gray area because the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution, although it applies to all public records and judicial proceedings, is sometimes interpreted to require some kind of court order from the original state."
Georgia judges may or may not honor White's Illinois license under the "full faith and credit" language of the fourth amendment, he said.
Helms is working to force Georgia law to require the DMV to honor gender on licenses from other states, and she is meeting with Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), Georgia's first openly gay state legislator, and other community activists next week on the issue.
Department of Motor Vehicle Safety P.O. Box 80447 Conyers, GA 30013 www.dmvs.ga.gov Trans=Action www.trans-action.org
"It's clearly an important issue and one we should address," Drenner said. "Public education and awareness take such a long time, and unfortunately, transgender issues are lagging behind."
Despite the fact that the DMV creates its own policy, it would take an act of Georgia's lawmakers to change the policy in question, said Susan Sports, DMV public information officer.
"We just enforce policy here," Sports said. "More than likely, it would take legislation to change this policy, because we only go by the person's birth certificate. If lawmakers want to change that rule, we'll change the policy."