My first encounter with The Ladies came in the middle of my first September as a man. I was in the midst of trying to find my place as a new teacher and a new adult, and The Ladies helped. Most of them were older women, lifelong bureaucrats trained to follow the red tape wherever it led, and they responded to my anxiety with kindness, empathy, and breathtaking efficiency.
Most recently, The Ladies were Mrs. Jenkins and her colleagues at my local post office. I went to them because I needed a new passport that would reflect my new name and gender marker, a process that required more steps, and considerably more paperwork, than a regular passport renewal. I packed up my folder full of documents, filled out every passport form I could find online, grabbed my old passport with the wrong name and gender printed on it, and wrote down the address for the special passport office that, at that time, dealt with complex changes like mine.
At first, Mrs. Jenkins was happy to help with the passport photo, although she didn’t really understand why I had so many pieces of paper with me, or why I was so nervous about it. So I took a deep breath and explained. She listened, her brow furrowing as I spoke, and gradually her coworkers gathered around, apparently mesmerized. One of them said, “We’ve never had one of you in here before.”
I said, “Well, you can’t always tell.”
They all nodded sagely. Two of them suggested that I did not look like I’d ever been a girl. One of them told me I was brave, and clasped my hand. Mrs. Jenkins kept watching me, and then she took charge, delegating and ordering her colleagues around. Within moments I had my new passport photo, and then she put my packet of information into the right order, made me a label, and filled out a delivery confirmation form.
As a transgender man, I have found that often the gatekeepers and bystanders of my transition have been unkind or uncouth, sometimes creating problems or hold-ups just for the sake of making me perform my change for their benefit. Sometimes I solved this by bypassing “required” steps altogether, as when I decided to find a surgeon who would perform top surgery, and a doctor who would prescribe testosterone, without following the Benjamin Standards of Care and the theoretically required protocol for transition. More often I just gave in and dealt with whatever needed to get done. But sometimes I was lucky, finding people who would help in unexpected places. For every ER doctor who refused to treat me, every bathroom I couldn’t use, and every colleague who determinedly misgendered me, there was someone who stepped up and made something work. In my house, we call them The Ladies.
Coming out as trans, while overlapping in some ways with coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, is as much about how you move through the world as anything else. Although not all trans people have surgery or elect for hormone therapy, almost all of us have had to figure out the day-to-day work of having our new, authentic identities recognized by our friends, our families, and the institutions and organizations that shape the world we inhabit. We need new ID cards and (if we live in a state that offers them) new birth certificates; our information changes on a level that’s hard for some people to understand. Nobody likes paperwork, but the legal and logistical details of transition can create particularly personal havoc in a trans person’s life. Our name changes, which require similar paperwork to that filed by a cisgender person after a marriage or divorce, for example, can be difficult because of lack of funds, or because a hostile judge decides to police, or deny, our identities. Even as society at large becomes somewhat more familiar with the trans experience, we often still find ourselves in the position of having to prove that we are who we say we are, and being public means risking mockery, confusion, or violence.
In recent months, the U.S. government has made a few important policy changes affecting transgender people and our public documents. Although these changes seemed small on the surface, they were enormous in practice; suddenly people who didn’t have a Social Security card or a passport with their right name and gender marker could get those without nearly as many obstacles. We still have to go through the same legal process for a name change, but other hurdles have been dismantled or improved. The most significant change is that we no longer have to have a “surgery letter” as proof of our “new” gender. This is huge, since many trans people, for any number of reasons, don’t ever have the genital surgery that this letter was supposed to demonstrate. I was one of the lucky ones — I had a doctor who knew the drill and gave me one of the coveted letters, full of medical jargon and words like “irreversible.” Armed with the precious letter, I set off to get my new documents and erase as much as I could of the old name and gender marker.
That first September, I had spent several days finalizing my name change with a disapproving judge and a host of clerks who couldn’t figure out what I was doing. When I finally got the official name change order, I said good-bye to the courthouse and made my way to the DMV office at Atlantic Center in Brooklyn. I had only had my driver’s license in New York for a matter of weeks, but it had the old information, and I couldn’t wait to get rid of it. At the same time, I knew I was going to have to out myself as trans to get a new one, and I was nervous, to say the least. The DMV is a place most people generally avoid, synonymous with some lower tier of hell, and it had taken me several hours to get my original New York license even without this new wrinkle. So I gritted my teeth and settled in to wait.
Hours passed. Finally I made it up to one of the DMV windows, where I explained that I needed to change my name and gender marker on my license. The woman at the window looked at my papers, then looked at me. I stood up straight and gave her my nicest smile. She gave me another number and sent me off to wait. Much later, a second woman joined her at the window and I watched, increasingly alarmed, as they peered at me over their glasses and shuffled through my paperwork. Finally they waved me back over. The younger woman had a pained expression, and her older coworker shook her head. “I’m sorry, honey,” she said. “We can go ahead and do the name change, but in New York we need a letter from a doctor saying that you’re really a man now before we can change that marker for you.”
I tried not to cry, especially since the paperwork I’d handed them had included a letter. After a moment, I said, “I’m so sorry, but I thought I had a letter like that for you,” and made a big show of flipping through my now-empty manila folder to make sure I hadn’t kept it back. Sure enough, on their next shuffle, they found the letter from my surgeon. The supervisor held it up with a triumphant, “Woo!” and her colleague’s shoulders relaxed for the first time in our whole interaction. They were so happy that they’d be able to help me. And a while later, they did — I emerged from the Brooklyn DMV, generally considered one of the most onerous places on Earth, with a bit of plastic proclaiming that I was me, not the girl I had so unsuccessfully been.
The next day, I walked into the Department of Education offices for the city of New York with all my paperwork and my new license. It was orientation on my first day as a NYC Teaching Fellow, a job that I’d applied for before starting my transition, under my old name, and with female documents. Although I’d written the NYCTF offices to let them know that I’d made some changes, this was my first formal interaction with them. It turned out that nobody from the offices on the upper floors of 25 Court Street had called the desks downstairs and told them how to handle my situation. Every desk required a fresh conversation, and that usually resulted in another raised eyebrow. However, bureaucrats are bureaucrats, and so the clerks shook their heads and stamped my forms; I had the right pieces of paperwork, so it didn’t matter if I made sense or not.
Dominos continued to fall. The lady at the Social Security office in Brooklyn was younger and more intrigued. “I bet you’re cuter now than you were before,” she said. I blushed, quietly admitting that she was probably right. She typed things into the computer, staring at me the whole time. “That’s cool,” she said at last. “You wanna go get a drink or something?” She frowned when I said no, but she didn’t stop my process. Graduate school financial aid advisors pushed through my FAFSA even though I hadn’t registered for Selective Service. When my car got towed in New York for parking violations (twice), The Ladies at the Marshal’s office and at the impound lots figured out how to deal with the mismatch between my registration (which was still in progress), my driver’s license, and the confirmation of name change letter from the bank that held my loan. Wherever I went in New York, I found myself having to explain who I was and how I got that way.
By the time I moved away from New York, most of my paperwork was complete; all that remained was my passport and that trip to the post office. When my new passport came, several weeks after we put together the packet, I took it to the post office the next time I went to buy stamps. Mrs. Jenkins was there. “Oh,” she said, quite loudly, gathering the other ladies to her station, “it’s that nice transgender boy!” I blushed and pretended that everyone else in the post office wasn’t staring at me, and then I showed her the passport. The Ladies applauded. I tried not to cry, but this time it was in a good way.
Mrs. Jenkins still says hello when I come in. I am almost certainly the only patron whose trans-ness gets called out on almost every visit to the post office. Without her, and The Ladies who preceded her, my trip from There to Here, from Her to Him, would have been unspeakably more difficult. I hope that Mrs. Jenkins and The Ladies are not just my story, but that every trans person who has to solve a document issue encounters people so helpful, and so kind. I thank them in perpetuity for everything that they made happen.