Most people don’t think a lot about their ID, as it sits in their purses, back pockets and bottom drawers away from the realm of daily thought. And with good reason. It doesn’t often say much that we wouldn’t already be OK with the strangers around us knowing.
However, for many marginalised people, appropriate identification documentation can be the difference between a feeling of relative safety, and the fear of the small and unavoidable interactions that demarcate our lives. When one’s ID becomes the subject of political interest, this simple subject can become one that leads to people feeling unwelcome — or indeed unsafe — when accessing essential services and participating in public life.
In the US last July, an alarm was raised by several transgender women when their passport renewals were called into question due to their status as transgender.
Mary Emily O’Hara wrote in Them of the experiences of Danni Askini and Janus Rose, both of whom had recently submitted passport renewals and had received responses requesting further “proof” of their transition. Rose, who had applied using her doctor’s standard certificate for a passport renewal after a change of name, was told that her medical clinic had never had someone denied while using the clinic’s documentation. In Askini’s case, her denial came after having had a female passport for two decades, renewing it without issue many times since then.
The US State Department responded to Them with a set of guidelines, but as mentioned in the article, “did not respond directly to a question about why someone’s gender marker would be ‘revoked'”.
Even if this were the result of a clerical error, it is understandable that these women’s concerns extend into the political. The current US administration’s views and actions regarding the transgender community are well known — including potentially dissuading the US Centre for Disease Control from using the word “transgender” at all. Last year, a leaked policy memo indicated the administration aimed to ensure that “the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence”.
Even in the months since these women voiced concern, the Trump administration has continued to act in an openly antagonistic way toward transgender people. The National Centre For Transgender Equality (NCTE) reported in September that the State Department web page on “gender designation” policies was replaced with a similar page titled “sex designation” that, despite indicating no legislative changes to the ability for transgender people to access passports, implies that the process is more ambiguous or difficult than it used to be.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the NCTE said that the changes, while apparently pointless, seem “designed to frighten, confuse and keep transgender people from exercising their full rights under the current policy”.
And transgender people are not alone in having their identification documents targeted. In September 2018, The Washington Post reported a steep increase in cases of Hispanic US citizens being denied passports due to accusations of fraudulent birth certificates or identification documentation.
Australia took a step in the right direction last year when the Parliament of Tasmania passed legislation proposing that reporting gender on birth certificates should be optional. Not political correctness gone mad, but a way of addressing the increasing complexity of gender as visible by the state, and its total lack of necessity for almost all service provision and interaction with the state.
Unlike state-issued IDs (such as a birth certificates or driver’s licence), passports are organised in the US and Australia at a federal level, and so are subject to federal laws. In Australia, despite disappointing and often conflicting state ID laws, our legislation surrounding passports is a strong showing for transgender and non-binary people. Since 2011, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has allowed any transgender applicant to receive a passport with the gender marker they prefer by providing a statement from a medical practitioner or psychologist, even if someone is unable to or would prefer not to undergo surgical intervention.
A spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Crikey that “the government supports the rights of all Australians to obtain a passport reflecting their preferred gender without undue restrictions”, adding that “transgender Australians are not required to have had sex reassignment surgery nor are they required to obtain an amended birth or citizenship certificate”.
However, it’s never cut and dry. As right-wing groups increasingly convene to publicly attack trans identities, and voter ID laws that have long stoked ire in the US raise their ugly head on our own shores, the politicisation of IDs is far from over.
As the battle lines continue to be redrawn, it’s ridiculous to think that for some transgender people it is easier and safer to get a passport than a photo ID or driver’s licence. As we follow the legislative case in Tasmania for a smarter future of ID, there’s hope, but for now it only goes to show that the personal is still categorically political.