How Gender Identity May Determine the Right to Vote in 2012

Thanks to strict, new voter ID laws that have swept through states, transgender citizens and others whose gender identities don't match the state's declaration of it may not be ale to vote in November.

By Brentin Mock Apr 16, 2012

American companies are born as private commercial entities, but thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, suddenly they can transition to human status for the purpose of influencing an election with millions of dollars. Meanwhile, thousands of actual human citizens, who’ve only transitioned gender identity, may have less influence over elections–or no influence at all–because they’ll now face heavy burdens under strict photo voter ID laws. It’s an obscene paradox.

Over 25,000 transgender American citizens may face stiff barriers to voting in the November 2012 election according to the report "The Potential Impact of Voter Identification Laws on Transgender Voters," released last week by the Williams Institute at UCLA’s law school. This is, by any measure, the portion of the electorate that is among the most marginalized and stigmatized, and hence probably most in need of the right to have a say in who governs their lives. But discussions on both sides of voter ID laws tend to leave out transgender citizens in discussions about who would be most adversely impacted.

I’m including myself in that critique. I briefly mentioned that transgender citizens would be impacted in my first Voting Rights Watch blog, but have failed to consistently talk about their burdens in subsequent blogs. We often talk about black and Latino voters, elderly and student voters, women and those with low incomes as having trouble satisfying new photo voter ID mandates, but many transgender voters will have an incredibly tough set of challenges before them if they are to have their vote counted in November. The cost of getting the appropriate ID to vote in some jurisdictions will be as high as getting surgery.

The photo voter ID laws are already unnecessary intrusions into the lives of many people of color. Those intrusions become an epic accumulation of burdens, though, for transgender, people of color. According to the report, two particular races–American Indian/Alaskan Native and African Americans–are most likely to lack identification documents (46 percent and 37 percent, respectively) that reflect their accurate gender identity.

Jody L. Herman, author of the report, used data from the Brennan Center for Justice report on voter ID laws and the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (she also co-authored) to paint a picture of what voting access will look like for transgender citizens in the nine states with strict voting laws. She found that about 88,000 transgender Americans are eligible to vote in those states in November, but roughly a third of those face possibly getting pariah-ed due to the lacking proper ID and the crazy complicated process of obtaining ID if the government questions your gender status.

This goes beyond just trying to get ID for voting purposes. Transgender citizens have problems obtaining and updating their identification cards for any reason, especially when dealing with the government. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey–the largest survey on transgender issues in the nation–shows that 22 percent of respondents said they had been denied equal treatment by a government agency or official, with another 22 percent saying they had been harassed or disrespected in the same setting. Respondents without ID reflecting their correct gender: 41 percent. That’s also about the same percentage who said that when they presented their non-gender-matching ID when asked to show it (at a bar, airport, etc.) were harassed afterward–3 percent said they were attacked or assaulted.

When government agencies that are supposed to serve the public aren’t safe spaces for transgender people, then routine citizen activities–like getting a license–becomes an albatross rather than an accomplishment. Registering to drive and vote are supposed to be proud moments, but for too many transgender people, it’s something to suffer through. And then consider that some government agencies require "proof" that you actually are the gender that you say you are–in some places that means getting gender reassignment surgery, whether it’s desired or not.

"There are a myriad of state and federal laws that govern whether or how transgender citizens can update their IDs, and some of these requirements are very difficult to meet and incredibly costly," Herman told me in a phone interview. "Not only is there the emotional and psychological aspects, but also onerous requirements, such as the requirement to have had a certain kind of surgery, and some transgender citizens can’t afford it because it’s not covered by health insurance, while some simply don’t want it."

But if they want to vote in certain places, they may have to do it. Such surgery typically costs between $40,000 and $50,000–that’s probably the largest poll tax ever. And when the percentage of transgender citizens most likely to lack proper identity documents are those who make below $10,000 a year, for many it’s plain impossible.

These are, no doubt, discussions that went missing among policymakers as they dreamed up and passed these laws. It probably never occurred to the almost-all-white-male voter ID chorus (plus black Alabama Rep. Artur Davis) that people who lack their race, gender and sexual privilege might have troubles with these rule changes. Or maybe it did occur to them, since there is a belief among conservatives that those who aren’t heterosexual aren’t citizens worthy of basic institutions like marriage and voting. Transgender people are the "irresponsible," who won’t get in line and fly straight, and hence don’t deserve the franchise. I mean, such people might vote for a president that bans LGBTQ housing discrimination or something.

UPDATE: One of the first persons I thought of when I read this report was Janet Mock. We’re not aware of any relation despite sharing last names, but I hope we are related. She’s been great at spreading awareness as a transgender advocate and writer, and I was curious of her thoughts on the report both as a transgender advocate and an African American. She grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii where she tells me she had no problems in terms of changing her gender marker on ID documents and birth certificates (ironically, our nation’s first black president also grew up in Hawaii and is constantly challenged on his birth certificate). However, she says she’s had plenty of other friends in other states who’ve had problems having their gender changed on ID documents. 

Says Mock:

It’s this patchwork of state laws concerning documentation that hurts trans people everywhere and limits our opportunities to not only vote but to avoid discrimination when looking for a home or a job.

What I find interesting about this type of voter suppression is that it’s obviously against everything we stand for as Americans and a society because it oppresses groups of marginalized Americans, telling us through these added barriers to vote, that our voices do not matter and that we do not have a say.

It’s sad that the fundamental democratic right to vote and be heard is something trans people have to add to our laundry list of civic duties taken away from us simply because we choose to live our lives most authentically.