Transgender Alaskans' privacy imperiled

COMPASS: Other points of view

May 21, 2012 

A recent court order may not have attracted much media attention, but it is tremendously important to a few of us Alaskans. The order deals with the Department of Motor Vehicles' restrictions on changing the gender markers on driver's licenses for transgender Alaskans.

You may wonder why this issue is important to you. It's about privacy. As Alaskans, we all have a constitutionally-guaranteed right to keep certain information to ourselves, including our medical history.

Until about a year ago, the DMV required transgender people to undergo certain expensive and risky surgeries in order to have a driver's license that reflects who they are. The state, rather than a person's physician, was dictating what treatments were appropriate. Not every transgender person is a candidate for surgery or can afford surgery that isn't covered by health insurance plans. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, gender transition can involve a variety of medications and surgeries.

More recently, the DMV has completely refused to change the gender marker on driver's licenses, saying that it needed a formal regulation, but never took any steps to come up with a regulation.

As a result, transgender Alaskans have been left with official government documents that don't match who they are. That creates an invasion of privacy when using a credit card, renting a car, flying commercially or doing anything requiring a government-issued ID.

I'm a professional who travels for work. I am a guy. I have a deep voice and a receding hairline. No one meeting me ever mistakes me for female. My passport says I'm male. My Alaska driver's license has my current name and recent photo, but still says "F."

How does this affect me? I carry my passport everywhere, using it for ID when everyone else uses a driver's license. That works fine when I'm presenting my ID on a job site, except when I need to drive a company vehicle or rent a car. Then I'm faced with a confused clerk who may or may not accept my driver's license as valid. If I have to explain medical reasons why my documents don't match, at best it's a conversation that invades my privacy and is uncomfortable for everyone involved. At worst, it exposes me to possible discrimination or suffering physical violence.

My privacy rights are just as important as the next guy's, and in job site conversation I do not want to be forced to discuss the state of my genitals. In writing a new policy for gender markers, Alaska's DMV does not have to reinvent the wheel. Many other states which require documentation from a medical or mental health professional confirming a change of sex. Similar polices can be adapted here.

The case that resulted in this decision was a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a professional pilot. She was born male and transitioned to female. She is obviously female, is accepted as a female by her coworkers, and has changed her passport and pilot's license to reflect her female gender. The DMV issued her a driver's license with a female gender marker, but then sent a letter threatening to revoke the license unless she could provide further information about her surgical history. The DMV claimed it had no authority, without a regulation, to change the gender on a license. The court found the DMV's refusal to change the gender marker unconstitutional and ordered the DMV to come up with a regulation.

There are more of us in Alaska than you might think. We're family people, professionals, community leaders, and we interact with you without you realizing we're transgender. We're not caricatures. We're not deviants. We're not criminals. We're Alaska citizens who don't want to be required to tell strangers our intimate medical history.

Alaska can implement a common-sense policy allowing transgender citizens the same privacy we all expect: to keep our medical history out of polite conversation. I hope our state adopts a policy similar to what's used by many other states, a policy that protects the privacy of all Alaskans.

Hayden Nevill is a veterinarian who lives and works in Fairbanks.

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