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Drivers license gender change easier for New Mexico’s transgender people
Checking “F” or “M” for gender designation on a driver’s license isn’t something most people think much about. But for transgender individuals who feel different from their biological sex, the discrepancy between what’s listed as their gender on identifying documents and their appearance can lead to unexpected problems.
For example, a woman transitioning to a man might have a beard, leading to problems if pulled over in a traffic stop or to security questions at an airport, advocates say.
In a move that prompted cheers from the state’s growing transgender community, New Mexico acted last month to reduce the number of those types of situations.
The New Mexico Motor Vehicles Division in July established a new form to help facilitate changing a person’s gender designation on a drivers license. In doing so, the MVD clarified that gender surgery is not a requirement for a person seeking to change their gender. All that is required is the signature of a medical provider or clinician, stating their opinion that the person will not change their gender again in the foreseeable future.
Alicia Ortiz, deputy director of the MVD, said this week the new form should make things like traffic stops less of a problem for transgender people, who might not have changed their gender marker before due to lack of standard procedures at the MVD. The new form standardizes the process by which gender can be changed throughout the department.
The new procedure was deemed necessary because while the MVD has seen a gradual increase in the number of transgender people requesting the change, there has been no consistency across offices about how to handle the request.
“It made sense to standardize the process so there are clear directions for our staff on how to handle these requests,” Ortiz said.
Changes reflect everyday facts, advocates say
New Mexico’s decision reflects the reality of the transgender community.
In the past the lack of clarity at MVD about how to change the gender marker meant state employees often followed the lead of the federal social security administration, which requires surgery before changing the gender designation, said Adrien Lawyer, executive director of the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico.
Like New Mexico, the U.S. State Department in June stopped requiring surgery for changing gender on a passport, advocates say.
Many, if not most, transgender people don’t have actual surgery. In many cases, they can’t afford it, Lawyer said. Instead, they will undertake drug therapy, or change their exterior attire.
“Many can’t afford surgery, so to require that is discriminatory economically,” Lawyer said. “This new policy relies on a person’s own interpretation of their gender, whether they are living their life as a male or female.”
“Document mismatch is a big problem for transpeople,” he continued. “For instance, I have a beard now so if I have an identification saying I’m female, it’s difficult.”
Misidentification at traffic stops isn’t the only concern for transgendered individuals, advocates say. When transgender people fly, what is listed as their gender on identifying documents versus their appearance can make it difficult to clear security, said Jordan Johnson, interim director of Equality New Mexico, an advocacy group for the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender community (GLBT).
New Mexico: A destination for transgender community?
While MVD’s decision might seem like a minor change, it’s actually one more step in what Johnson says is very progressive attitude in New Mexico.
“We have some of the best laws when it comes to gender identity expression,” Johnson said, “and many people move here from outside because there’s a sense of protection … you see more people comfortable about being able to express they are a transgender person. This is a really progressive thing that is happening for this community.”
This might be one reason the MVD has seen a gradual increase of transgender people requesting the change. The department hasn’t tracked the number of transgender people who come in to change their gender on driver’s licenses, but anecdotally, Ortiz said she believed it was clear that there has been a slight but noticeable increase.
The New Mexico Department of Health 2010 health date report about the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender community does not have statistics about how large the transgender community is in New Mexico, because that level of detail was not collected in surveys before 2009. Presumably, that data will be included in future reports.
It’s unclear how many transgender people there are in New Mexico, Lawyer said, but it’s clear to him as well that the population has grown. He says that’s probably due to an “explosion of information” that has helped people know they aren’t alone and consequently more ready to take the steps to embrace a gender identity change.
“People in rural areas, for instance, can get online and see that they aren’t alone, that others feel the way they do,” Lawyer explained. “So the availability of information and support has allowed people to come out and ask for help to transition.”
This is important, Lawyer said, because it keeps people alive.
“Forty percent of youth who are gender variant attempt suicide at least one time, so being able to get on the internet and find people who are like you, ask for help and transition, is keeping people alive,” he said.
Examples of laws that protect transgender people in New Mexico are an employment non-discrimination law that protects a person from losing their job while they are transitioning from one gender to another. Additionally, a hate crimes statute that increases penalties for people who target people for characteristics like race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. A law that Equality New Mexico would like to see pass is a “safe schools” bill that would establish anti-bullying procedures within the schools.