Somebody asked me the other day, as a transsexual woman - what does having my gender reflected correctly in identity documents and birth certificate mean to me? In South Africa we are very fortunate in that transsexual people can change not only their names and gender, but also their gender description in the population register.
So? What does this mean to us? I know what it means to me.
It is an interesting question, because there are places where this is still not the case. In many countries, there are women with birth certificates which proclaim their "manhood", and men with identity documents which are still marked "female".
I feel this question can best be answered through a number of scenarios I laid out below:
1. A woman is stopped by a police officer on the highway. He asks to see her drivers license. She produces it and he notices the card has a man's name and picture and the card identifies the owner as male. Immediately he treats her with suspicion - is it really her drivers license? Is she a criminal? She is immediately apprehensive about her gender identity and history being exposed. She is embarrassed and fears victimization or ridicule.
2. A woman goes into a bank to make an inquiry or withdrawal from her account. The bank teller is new and hasn't seen her before and asks for her identity document. Reluctantly she passes it over to the teller who notices the id number is male, but the names and picture are female. The Bank account details on her display are male. She asks the client if she has power of attorney on "her husband's" account. She explains as quietly as she can through the glass partition, knowing the whole bank can hear their conversation. The bank teller asks out of curiosity what her old male name was.
3. A heterosexual couple go to see a priest about marriage. The interviews go well, as do the marriage classes, but upon finalizing the details for the booking, the priest asks the couple for their identity documents. The groom's id still says "female". "Sorry", the priest says - "I can't help you, I am not allowed to perform same-sex weddings." and proceeds to give them a lecture on sin before asking them to leave his parish.
In other countries where there is no marriage equality for gay people, and where transsexuals are not allowed to change their gender description, they are then not allowed to legally marry a person of the opposite gender. This means if a transsexual woman is still legally male and wants to marry another woman, then oddly enough, this is legal - assuming of course they can find a church actually willing to marry them. Interesting.
4. A woman receives mail or a courier-delivered parcel addressed to her old male name. Most business software in use by banks and companies today is linked to the identity number of the individual, which means if the number is "male" then regardless of whether she has changed her name to "Marsha WIlliams", the address and content will be made out to "Mr Marsha WIlliams". This is more than just an administrative oversight, it is clear refusal to recognize her female identity and she finds it hurtful and insulting.
5. Because of her need for privacy and legitimate fears of victimization, a transwoman's friends do not know about her past life. Because her driver's license and identity documents contain information which could do untold harm to her personal relationships and even work environment, she is forced to guard them closely in case someone sees them.
6. A woman arrives at a foreign airport and is asked for her passport. She presents it and the official notices her gender is described as "male". She is then forced to explain in detail, publicly, before being escorted to a back-room to be searched and inspected.
I have experienced some of the above scenarios myself, but where I live in South Africa, it is quite easy and safe for transgender people these days, at least when compared to other places. My driver's license, Id book and passport all show my female identity number, name and picture. More importantly, my birth certificate and the population register has also been changed to reflect this - and so has the population register.
However, up until I presented a letter from my surgeon, I was only allowed to change my names and picture in my identity documents, and not my gender description or Id number. Thus, anyone in such a position even in South Africa is still exposed to all of the above situations.
I must point out that while my identity number and birth certificate have been amended, my old number and names are still on the government's record, so that in case of previously committed crimes, succession or inheritance, it is still clear that I am the same individual.
Taking this into consideration, I no longer have to fear embarrassment, or worse, because of the above. Because of the legal right to marry whomever I choose, whether male or female, I can marry under the law as is appropriate to my gender or sexual orientation. Also, it is my prerogative to disclose or not, about my trans status. I need not feel guilty about not telling strangers that I used to be physically male - after all, what business is it of theirs?
What is more important, is that because of anti-discrimination laws I am not afraid to be open about my past, or my sexuality, should I choose to do so. Therefore, any discrimination or victimization can be redressed through the courts. This means that I do not have anything to fear because of my gender identity, sexual orientation or my history.
At least, this is the ideal - although hate crime still can and does occur.
Many people cannot due to various circumstances complete the process of transition, most usually due to financial reasons. Of course, many people still will not recognize a male to female transsexual as female until the very last surgery, but what of those stuck in between? Are they mentally, psychologically or spiritually any less female than a person who was born female or completed surgery?
In the UK such cases are recognized as their intended sex, all that is required is an undertaking to remain in role, regardless of surgery. In SA the same kind of law was passed, but it seems there are still some problems in getting Home Affairs to honor it, which seems to coincide with the broader problem of getting South Africans to honor us as equals.
Why should countries officially recognize the gender of their transgender citizens? Because it spares them embarrassment, humiliation, injustice and fear. Because it shows respect and affirmation for their equality, dignity and humanity. More importantly, because it is the right thing to do.