by Emily Gurnon
When Carrie Pepin Smith wanted to become Cary PepinSmith, a Hennepin County judge in the United States, had no problem granting the request.
But when the 44-year-old transgender man wanted to change the “F” on his birth certificate to an “M,” the judge balked.
“He had no idea how to change the gender on my birth certificate,” PepinSmith said. But he’d heard other people had gone to the same place, the Hennepin County Courthouse, and had both the name and gender designation changed at once. “So why is there no consistency in this?” he wondered.
People who move from one gender to another — with surgical changes or without — face a confounding maze of legal challenges. One of the greatest is changing identity documents, including birth certificates, driver’s licenses, Social Security records and passports.
It doesn’t stop there. Issues involving employment, health insurance and even bathroom use are among the top concerns facing transgender people, advocates say.
“Our legal system is so premised on the notion of two categories, male and female, that it doesn’t easily grasp what to do when a person moves from one category to another,” said Phil Duran, staff attorney at OutFront Minnesota, a Minneapolis-based group that offers programs and services for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.
“The law often just does not have easy, established answers for the questions transgender people find themselves facing,” Duran said.
Why do it?
For those outside the transgender community, the very idea of sex change is hard to comprehend. Those who have lived through it say they didn’t initially understand it, either. All they knew was that something was wrong.
PepinSmith, who lives in Minneapolis, said he knew from an early age he was different from other girls. One Christmas, his aunt gave him a little pink purse.
“I cried,” he said. “I used to get mad all the time because my (male) cousin would get Tonka trucks.”
In his early 20s, recognizing his attraction to women, PepinSmith figured he was a lesbian. That was going to be the “big fix,” he said.
But it still didn’t feel right. He gained a hundred pounds and didn’t take care of himself. “I just couldn’t love that body of mine,” he said. “I couldn’t do it.”
Pepin Smith and other transgender people speak of living with years of shame, self-hatred and depression.
“I couldn’t stand what I looked like,” said Kathleen Culhane, 43, of St. Paul, who was born a man and had surgery to become female in 2005.
Sex as a man felt disgusting, Culhane said. She spent years fighting deep depression. In her early 20s, while in the Army National Guard, she swallowed a whole bottle of acetaminophen and almost died.
“I don’t know how many times I went to bed at night and prayed to not wake up in the morning,” Culhane said.
Miranda Foslien also transitioned from man to woman. She, too, felt alienated from her body and repelled by her part in the sex act.
“I never knew that people had sex and just liked it,” she said.
The 49-year-old Mahtomedi woman said she knew when she was young that she didn’t want to be male.
“I was upset at God for being so cruel,” she said. “Why couldn’t he have made me a girl?”
For her, the sex change wasn’t so much a change as an affirmation of how she felt.
“Most of the people that I know that are transgender feel like they were always this person,” Foslien said. “They didn’t change into this different person.”
But local, state and federal authorities don’t always make it easy for transgender people to live their new lives.
When someone can’t get a new document reflecting a new gender, the ramifications can be serious.
Social Security records that list someone as a man who presents herself as a woman, for instance, may cost that person a job.
“My clients — they just want to work,” said Connie Hope, a Maple Grove attorney who has helped many transgender people through the process of changing their birth certificates. “If you can’t have ID, you can’t start a new job. If you can’t go to the Social Security Administration and have your gender marker changed, that causes problems for most people.”
The Social Security Administration requires a person to submit a court order authorizing a change in the name and gender on the birth certificate in order to change Social Security records, according to a spokesman in the Minneapolis office. It also requires a physician’s statement saying the person has had sex-reassignment surgery.
But according to the Minnesota Department of Health, which processes the court orders, the orders are few and far between.
More common are amendments to the birth record, which can be accomplished with a physician’s letter, again testifying to the fact that surgery has been done, said Krista Bauer of the Health Department’s Office of the State Registrar.
A court order replaces the birth certificate with a new one. It contains no indication that there was any change. The amendment, in contrast, contains a note saying a change has been made to something “other than the registrant’s name or date of birth.”
Passports present another challenge
A person can change the gender on his or her passport with documentation of the sex-change surgery, according to an official with the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. State Department.
That leaves out many transgender people who can’t afford the surgery or whose health insurance doesn’t cover it.
Driver’s licenses seem easier to change. State policy says a transgender person can use a “variance” process, said Lisa Hager of Driver and Vehicle Services. The person must provide documents saying they are undergoing a sex change, but actual surgery is not necessarily required, she said.
The Pioneer Press found that getting solid answers to such questions can be time-consuming and difficult. Most government Web sites do not address the issue of transgender identity documents. The clerks at government counters do not always have the correct information.
Hope, the attorney, said her experience was similar.
“From government sources, you’ll have a hard time,” she said.
A long process
The hardest part for society to accept may be that the process of changing from one gender to another is a long one — and many people live much of their lives in between.
Ross Neely, co-coordinator of the Transgender Commission at the University of Minnesota, said it’s impossible to know how many transgender people there are in the Twin Cities — but it’s certainly more than many outside the community may think.
“There are a lot of transgender people that are not seeking hormones and surgery and still identify as transgender,” said Neely, whose position comes with his staff job at the university’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender programs office. Neely is not transgender himself.
“We just have way too much invisibility and stigma to be able to tell,” he said.
“Personally, I know hundreds and hundreds of transgender people.”
Change for the Better
Erica Rogers, 44, a transgender person and Kathleen Culhane’s spouse, said she had to submit her Minnesota driver’s license variance application three times before the license came back with the “M” changed to “F.” Rogers and Culhane were legally married in 2007, just before Rogers’ sex-reassignment surgery.
Rogers has been fortunate with jobs — unlike Culhane, who said she was fired from a position at the University of Iowa when she came out to her bosses as transgender.
“They said, ‘We feel that your condition causes you to not be able to give 100 percent to your job,’ ” Culhane recalled.
As of 2006, Minnesota was one of only eight states to offer protection to transgender people under its Human Rights Act, according to the state Department of Human Rights.
Many agree the atmosphere for transgender people — at least in the Twin Cities — has improved dramatically.
Debra Davis, who runs the Gender Education Center in Maple Grove, presents training in the Twin Cities and nationwide for companies where an employee is transitioning from one gender to another.
She talks about the issues and then lets people ask questions — most of which center around which bathroom the transgender person will be using, she said.
“All it takes, we find, is just a little bit of education,” she said.
Though the struggle is long, many transgender people are finding light at the end of the tunnel.
Asked whether her transition was worth it — despite the hassles, the expense, the embarrassment, the uncertainty, the risk — Rogers didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
Editorial reference: LINK