Changing your gender designation on a passport, birth certificate, or driver’s license can be a confusing and frustrating process for trans and gender-nonconforming people.
Some requirements vary state-to-state while others are handled on a federal level. Some processes require proof of surgery or a court hearing and others simply a signed doctor’s note. For many people, getting these various documents in order may not even be a possibility. Prohibitively expensive fees, legal restrictions, regional barriers, and lack of access to healthcare are common roadblocks when it comes to updating documents.
BuzzFeed LGBT spoke with Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the ACLU, Aubri Drake, an informationaist and researcher at the Trans Relief Project, and Lurene Grenier, co-founder of the Trans Relief Project, to demystify the process.
There’s a common misconception that all your gender markers on various forms of ID have to match, explains Drake. “Unfortunately, it’s very common for trans people to have a mix of different names and gender markers on their legal documents.”
In a survey of nearly 27,000 trans people living in the US, completed last year, only 11% had the proper name and gender marker on all of their IDs, says Drake. In the same survey, 68% reported that none of their forms of identification had the proper name and gender marker.
Crucially, gender marker corrections can also serve as preventative measures against discrimination or violence from being outed.
“If you are a man and are perceived as a man but are listed as female on [a form of] identification, it can cause you to be outed as transgender each time you present your identification,” Strangio explains. “This might be at an airport, when applying for a job, or when pulled over or stopped by the police.”
“Particularly for immigrants, trans people of color, formerly incarcerated trans people, and others who are surveilled and targeted by law enforcement, it can be an important shield against some forms of discrimination.”
Here’s everything you need to know about correcting your gender marker on ID documents, ranked from highest priority to lowest, according to advocates:
Because of the versatility and influence that comes with having an accurate and up-to-date passport, it’s the change to prioritize. Although it is the easiest process to complete, it will also be the most expensive.
Given potential policy changes at the federal level in January, Strangio advises prioritizing federal documents like social security and passports.
Although proof of surgery is not a requirement to get an updated U.S. passport, the U.S. Dept. Of State requires you obtain a signed original statement from your physician indicating you are “in the process of or have had appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition.
What You’ll Need:
• Completed US passport application.
• Photo ID
• Current photo that reflects your current appearance
• Signed letter from your physician
FYI: You do not need to have your gender marker updated on your ID or birth certificate in order to change it on your passport.
“You can change the gender marker on your passport without changing your name,” says Grenier. “You have a year in which to update the name on your passport for no fee.”
Grenier also suggests keeping several copies of your doctor’s letter, as it can be used for multiple document changes.
There are two different types of passports issued based on where you are in your medical transition.
If you are a minor, the requirements and restrictions above still stand with the added requirement of parental consent.
You can calculate the cost of updating your passport here.
What counts as “appropriate” clinical treatment? That’s really between you and your physician.
The US Dept. of State states that your physician determines “what appropriate clinical treatment is according to acceptable medical practices, standards and guidelines.” Surgery is absolutely not required.
Treatment can vary from hormone replacement therapy (HRT), to reassignment surgery, to simply regular therapy sessions with a therapist. You can find treatment methods outlined in the World Professional Association for Trans Health Standards of Care.
Details of your specific treatments do not have to be included in your physician’s letter.
But even with that bit of preserved privacy, this can sometimes be an invasive step.
“When I was changing my gender marker on my driver’s license in Connecticut, the state allowed it but didn’t have a process in place,” Drake says, recounting their own personal experience. “My doctor’s letter was passed around the entire DMV office, with everyone staring and whispering and glaring at me. In the end, I was told I had to bring a different doctor’s letter back — identical except a line that stated the physician was an ‘expert in transgender healthcare.’”
Currently, there is no available nonbinary option for U.S. passports — you’ll have to select either a male or female gender marker.
Although a handful of states still require proof of surgery, a court-ordered change of gender, or an amended birth certificate to correct a driver’s license gender marker, in the majority of states the process is a bit simpler.
In most cases you’ll need:
• Proof of your identity (birth certificate, government issued driver’s license or ID card, social security number)
• Signed letter from your physician
Find out what your specific state needs from you here.
Correcting gender on a birth certificate is notoriously difficult and therefore usually the last document people bother to correct — if they update it at all. Idaho, Kansas, and Tennessee completely bar gender marker changes on state-issued birth certificates. In order to complete a request you would have to successfully challenge the policy in court. “It is technically allowed in Texas and Ohio, but is extremely difficult,” adds Drake.
According to Strangio, many other states, particularly across the South and Midwest, still require proof of surgery to update gender on birth certificates. “Proof of surgery” indicates the need for a copy of the court order for gender change, though state laws generally don’t specify the type of surgery required.
“There is in law, as in public discourse, a misconception that there is a single thing called ‘sex reassignment surgery’ and little awareness that there are in fact many surgical and non-surgical interventions that trans people undergo as treatment,” Strangio explains.
You can check your state’s requirements here.
5. OK, hold up a second — what about social security cards and changing your legal name?
Getting your name legally changed is a separate process from a gender marker corection and, like driver’s licenses, are handled differently depending on where you live.
In some states, like Connecticut, a legal name change requires only filling out a petition with your district’s superior court and paying a filing fee. In other places, Maryland for example, you may be required to publish a notice in your county newspaper.
“Georgia’s name change process can take up to six months, compared with as little as a day in other states,” says Drake.
If you are looking to update the name on your driver’s license, you’ll need to first change your name with the Social Security Administration.
• You can update the name on your card through the mail or in person at your local Social Security office by providing proof of identity and the completed application.
• You can apply for a Social Security gender marker change at the same time, providing a letter from your physician or a court order recognizing your correct gender. (Your SS card lists your name and SS number, but the SSA maintains some information in its database, including gender.)
Find out what forms you need to complete for a name change here.
Getting started can seem daunting, but there are resources available to help. Check to see if there are any organizations in your area that can provide support, financial aid, or guidance in the process. Here are a few to get you started:
Helpful links and resources
Trans Equality’s ID Document Center — A one-stop hub for name and gender change information
The Trans Relief Fund— The non-profit group has helped fund document changes for over 160 trans people so far with more than $31,000 dispensed to those in need.
The Pop Up ID Project — Provides trans people in the New England area free legal representation through a rapid-response program.
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