Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The New NJ Trans Driver License Regs: A Step Forward, If You Can Afford To Take It

Last Friday, I drove down to New Jersey Motor Vehicle Department headquarters in Trenton and tried to take advantage of the new, less oppressive identity regulations for gender markers on New Jersey driver licenses. I got a pretty rude awakening when I arrived, though. When this new regulation was released, everything we were told about it led one to believe that all that would be required to change the gender marker on a New Jersey driver's license in the future was a signed affidavit attesting to the fact that the driver intended to live in a certain gender identity and the change was not for fraudulent purposes.

Seems perfectly reasonable, doesn't it? It did to me too...until I actually tried to do it. I was handed a form that required a gender specialist signoff stating that they believe my gender identity to be either male or female and for that to continue for the foreseeable future. If this form had been handed to me even as little as six months ago, I would have had no problem getting it signed. The problem is that Dr. Aviva Nubel, the gender specialist who I'd seen for six years, the one gender specialist on the planet who could credibly testify to my gender identity, has moved out west and effectively dropped off the radar. Since Dr. Nubel treated many transpeople in New Jersey and surrounding states for decades, it's likely that I'm far from the only New Jersey transperson in this predicament right now.

Now I have to go to another gender specialist and spend who knows how much more before this new doctor who I've never met will sign the paper. The real-world result of these new regulations is that I've now got a whole new set of expenses to worry about at a time when I can least afford them.

Of course, I'll end up paying it, whatever it is. How could I not? Hopefully unemployment will at least get me far enough to get that paper signed. I'm probably not going to be able to establish a real ongoing relationship with a gender specialist for a while, at least not until I've got a decent job. My car is going to be repaired soon so hopefully (key word) that won't be an issue for all that much longer, but it's still going to be an additional expense that I really just don't need right now.

And then, there's the other part of all this. On the one hand, I know I should probably be grateful that things are easier than they were, and yet, on the other hand, it's hard for me to feel gratitude when the state is still saying to me and every other transsexual in New Jersey that unlike as in every other case involving attesting to the truth of presented information, my word as a citizen isn't good enough to attest to my own gender identity.

My sworn word is good enough to testify in court, vote, join the military and kill for my country (if I were still young enough), enter into a legally-binding contract, and on and on. Even a convicted mass murderer can be legally sworn in to testify in a court of law and then be held responsible for the truth of his testimony.Yet, as a transperson my own sworn word must be backed up by that of a gender specialist when I am testifying to the veracity of my own gender identity.

This, to me, is the greatest insult of all, perhaps even greater than the surgery requirement this new policy replaces. The old policy relied mainly upon the simple presence or absence of certain physical parts. The new policy presupposes that a transsexual person cannot trusted to know his or her own mind, that their assertion of their own gender identity must be backed up by someone else.

Let's dig even deeper. Obviously, it's not possible for one person to truly know the mind of another, no matter how intelligent they are or how many degrees they may hold. One can argue that a competent mental heath professional could certify someone sane or insane, but can they really know their patient well enough to be truly certain of that patient's internal gender identity and be able to certify it to the state? And if we allow for that to be possible, for someone else to be able to certify such an intensely and deeply-held personal aspect of another individual, how is it reasonable to presume that the assertation of the individual in question is any less reliable than that of the professional?

I guess my true core issue here is one of class. This new policy, while far easier to deal with for some, is still an unreasonably high hurdle for low-income transpeople, those who can't afford the services of a gender specialist to obtain that signature on the form. Thus the ability to change the gender marker on one's driver's license in New Jersey remains the sole purview of those who can afford to pay out-of-pocket for expensive professional care that most employee insurance plans don't cover.

I did six years of it when I was working and making a decent paycheck. Now the one person who could certify that is gone and I must start from scratch, all because the State of New Jersey will not take me at my word as it does myself and every other citizen in every other case where one might be called to offer sworn testimony.

For those who can't afford to pay a gender specialist and don't have access to one through other means, there's no practical difference between the old policy and the new one. For those who slip through the cracks because of lack of access to outside proof of gender identity, proper legal recognition remains just as unobtainable in the State of New Jersey as it ever was.

One might think I blame Governor Corzine, our community activists, or the motor vehicle department for this failure. I do not, not in any way. The new policy is indeed a quantum leap forward in some ways. It makes life easier for a lot of people, but not for enough people. It doesn't eliminate the high cost of legal acknowledgment for transsexuals in New Jersey, it simply lowers that cost somewhat so more middle class transfolks are able to afford it. Many of those on the lower end of the income scale will remain without access to proper and accurate legal identification.

There's no doubt that Governor Corzine's heart is in the right place. He's earned not only my vote but also my respect and gratitude for the way he's stood up for LGBT rights in New Jersey during his tenure as our state's chief executive. There's also no doubt that there were the best of intentions in mind when these new regulations were created. The problem is that there's still an undue burden being imposed exclusively upon transgender New Jersey citizens for no good reason, in the service of no compelling state interest.

How can anyone, regardless of their level of education and training, understand the specific inner workings of an individual's mind better than that person themselves? Unless that person has been certified incompetant (and in which case, why would they be applying for a driver's license anyway?), why shouldn't that same sworn personal certification that's accepted as legally-binding in a court of law and in all other legal matters have the same weight when certifying one's own gender identity? In the end, is there truly anyone other than the individual in question who can possibly certify their own gender identity with any real credibility?

For those who would argue that there's the possibility of fraud here, I'd respond that there's that possibility each and every time someone puts their signature to a legal document, and there are laws proscribing legal penalties for such crimes already on the books. For an adult citizen who has not been declared legally incompetant, their signature on a sworn statement declaring their own gender identity should be considered no less valid and no less legally-binding than any other legal document they may sign. To do otherwise is to set transgender citizens apart from other New Jersey citizens, defining us as different from everyone else, and then denying us equal protection and consideration under the law based solely upon that difference.

I know there are some who would say that this is best we can do and we should be thankful for whatever small victories we can manage. I don't disagree that we should honor and laud the gains we make and those who help us achieve them, but I also know that our true goal has to be not less discrimination but no discrimination at all. If not, then we have no real goals and we will always be settling for second-class citizenship.

Here in New Jersey, a significant step has been taken that will help many transsexual New Jerseyans live their lives facing less discrimination. Now it's time to take the next step and guarantee that benefit to all transsexual New Jersey citizens, not just the middle and upper classes.

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