This past week our nation joined others around the globe in celebrating International Human Rights Day, which marked the 64th anniversary of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, signed on December 10, 1948. This document declares that “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” are the foundation for a just, peaceful, and free world. Decades later these principles continue to guide human rights policies established around the world, acting as a foundation for the evolving global understanding of what it means to acknowledge the equality of all people.
Transgender people, however, continue struggling to attain this innate right to dignified treatment and equality. As the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has stated, “It is clear that many transgender persons do not fully enjoy their fundamental rights both at the level of legal guarantees and that of everyday life.” One way in which transgender people have struggled is in accessing identity documents that provide legal recognition of their gender identities. The failure of governments to acknowledge the gender identities of all people represents a rejection of the fundamental rights of self-determination, dignity, and freedom.
Moving forward as a global community, it is essential that all people—transgender or not—be given access to official documents that accurately reflect each individual’s gender identity and that respect the rights belonging to each of us as humans.
The daily importance of identity documents
Having access to identity documents is important because of the very reason they are taken for granted: They are an integral part of daily life in most cultures. Identity documents are needed for many activities of daily life—working, voting, traveling, accessing government institutions, and proving that one is who one claims to be. Yet for many transgender people, accessing this basic proof of identity is out of reach, pushing them further into the margins of society. Historically, many obstacles have been placed in the way of obtaining accurate ID. For many transgender people, these financial, medical, and legal barriers are impossible requirements to satisfy.
Adding an additional layer of complexity to this landscape is the wide variety of identity requirements that citizens are required to have in many countries. In the United States alone, for example, most people need consistent access to accurate birth certificates, driver’s licenses, passports, and social security cards. The requirements for these documents are set by different levels of government—both federal and state—often require different standards for amending the information they reflect, and utilize different administrative processes for amendment.
The two most common forms of identity documents used by people across the globe, however, are birth certificates and passports. There is currently no international standard for verifying or amending the information contained on birth certificates. Moreover, the standards that are in place are set by each nation or by sub-jurisdictions within that nation. Similarly, standards for passport documentation are set at the national level. Passports, however, are subject to a foundational set of international standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The standards set by this organization dictate that passports must include an individual traveler’s name, date of birth, nationality, and sex. In the “sex” field, the standards dictate that permissible options are “M” for male, “F” for female, or “X” for unspecified gender. Countries, therefore, are given significant leeway to establish policies that affirm the identities of transgender and gender nonconforming citizens, and this flexibility should be exercised in a way that protects the human rights of the diverse people in each nation.
Transgender people face significant consequences from policies preventing access to accurate identification
When a government agency is unwilling to issue identification that reflects a person’s identity, they are making a value judgment on the legitimacy of that identity and, as an extension, on an individual’s right to citizenship. Yet being forced to live, move, and contribute in society without accurate, updated identification have impacts for transgender people that go far beyond an administrative lack of access.
Presenting inaccurate identification all too often becomes a trigger for various forms of abuse and discrimination. Transgender people who may otherwise move through the world undetected by those who would discriminate against them are often “outed” by an old gender marker, an old name, or an old photograph.
The results of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, reveal how common these outcomes are in the United States. Forty percent of respondents who reported presenting ID that did not match their gender identity experienced harassment—3 percent were physically assaulted and 15 percent were asked to leave the premises where the ID had been presented. Furthermore, those respondents who were unable to update their driver’s licenses reported much higher rates of discrimination in hiring and housing.
Even when antitransgender bias is not specifically at play, a perceived mismatch between an individual and the information on a presented ID can trigger heightened scrutiny and create barriers to accessing services and spaces. This has been the case for many transgender voters in the United States. Leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Jody Herman, Peter J. Cooper public policy fellow at the Williams Institute at the University of Los Angeles School of Law, estimated that as many as 25,000 transgender voters in states with strict photo ID voter requirements could be disenfranchised, not just because of antitransgender bias but also because they simply may not have appeared to be the person on their ID.
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