Why Transgender People Suffer from ‘ID Anxiety’

6 minute read

Think about the last time you went through TSA before getting on a flight.

No matter how well you packed or how often you’ve traveled, the experience probably managed to be a relatively unpleasant one. As you got in line, you might’ve been worried about how far away your gate was, about whether or not your flight would be delayed, or about if your feet were going to smell when you took off your shoes. If there was traffic on the way to the airport, you might’ve even been quietly (or not so quietly) panicking that you were going to miss your flight.

But odds are, no matter how stressed you were, you weren’t worried about missing your flight because the gender on your ID didn’t “match” how the TSA officer perceived you.

For trans people, “ID anxiety” can be an almost daily occurrence. As a gender nonconforming writer and producer, I travel at least once a month to make appearances at events or perform at colleges and universities. Each time I go through TSA, I take a deep breath and say a prayer that the officer at the podium won’t take one look at my dress, then the “M” on my driver’s license, and decide that I need to be held for more thorough questioning.

This anxiety isn’t just limited to TSA. When I see blue lights behind me on the highway and I worry that I’m being pulled over for a speeding ticket, ID Anxiety kicks in again. When a police car drives up behind me, my first thought isn’t “I wonder how much the fine is going to be?” My first thought is “Oh God, what am I wearing today? Am I wearing too much makeup? Will this dress be a problem? Is the officer going to have an issue with the M on my license?”

No one deserves to miss their flight because their gender marker strikes the TSA agent as strange given the person who is standing in front of them. No student deserves to have more trouble with their school administration because of an M or an F that is assigned to their name. No person, transgender or otherwise, should have to worry about being taken to jail or down to the precinct because their identity documents have a “flaw.”

And at the end of the day, why do we have gender markers on our ID documents in the first place? What purpose do they serve? What compelling state interest requires them to be there?

Think about it. If you’re going to steal someone’s identity, what are the odds that you’re going to get their Social Security number and name right, but their gender marker wrong? If you’re going to use a fake ID to board a plane, are you really going to be incorrect about the person’s gender whom you’re impersonating? Or if you’re going to make a fake ID to get into a club, is the gender marker really going to be the part that you mess up?

Other than facilitating discrimination against transgender people, I am hard-pressed to identify the purpose served by the gender marker on our ID documents.

Even in medical contexts, they are virtually useless and often lead to discriminatory or suboptimal treatment. For medical purposes, your gender marker is supposed to describe a predetermined set of bodily characteristics. But what if you’re a transgender woman who was assigned male at birth, has taken estrogen for over two decades, has breasts, and medically has a penis? Neither an M nor an F can help a doctor understand your unique medical history, so what purpose does the gender marker on your ID really serve in helping the doctor to provide accurate, non-discriminatory, trans-inclusive healthcare?

Clearly we still have some fairly serious gender problems to solve. As a society, we have to begin redefining the role played by gender markers. That’s why, along with the rest of the transgender community, I am ecstatic about a recently-proposed bill in California that would create a gender-neutral designation on state ID documents and allow individuals to change their gender marker without undergoing clinical treatment or getting a court order.

If passed, the proposed law — Senate Bill 179 — would represent a historic leap forward for the transgender community in California and across the country. As a genderqueer person living in Los Angeles, I could then apply for a new driver’s license at the California DMV that simply listed “nonbinary” in the gender category.

The impact of having that on my driver’s license would be profound. I’d no longer have to worry about getting strange looks from TSA officers, and instead of assuming that I want a man to pat me down, they would simply ask me if I had a preference for a man or a woman. When being pulled over by a police officer, I wouldn’t have to worry anymore about my gender being treated as some sort of interrogation, or have to deal with the implications of simultaneously having makeup on my face and an “M” on my license.

I’m not sure that any visit to the DMV will ever be a “pleasant” experience (and I’m certain that unflattering driver’s license photos will continue to be a problem for generations to come), but creating a third option on licenses and waiving clinical requirements in order to change your gender marker is a big step in the right direction. These measures will allow all transgender people greater options and the ability to choose the option that works best for them.

It’s hard enough to navigate the world as a transgender person. The least we can do is ensure that your driver’s license doesn’t have to make it any harder.

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