This week Newark, New Jersey, became the latest in a growing number of cities to adopt a municipal ID program. The IDs, available to all residents 14 and older, will be especially useful to undocumented immigrants, the homeless, formerly incarcerated people, and other populations who may not be able to present documents typically required for state-issued cards.
One notable addition to this list: transgender people. Unlike other forms of state and federal identification, Newark’s new card will not list the holder’s gender. The omission is expected to benefit those who do not identify with the gender listed on their birth certificate or other official documents.
Gender sensitivity is a relatively new development within the relatively new phenomenon of municipal IDs. In 2007, New Haven, Connecticut, became the first city in the U.S. to offer city IDs, followed by several cities in California (including San Francisco and Los Angeles), Washington, D.C., New York City, and a few others. In every case, undocumented immigrants were the main target group for the cards. But when San Francisco launched its ID program in 2007, the city made a point of omitting a gender marker (“male” or “female”) from the card, and in 2014 New York City became the first jurisdiction to allow local ID card holders to self-designate their gender.
Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, hopes that more cities will embrace self-designation on municipal IDs. “Since transgender people face so much discrimination based on sex, it’s important that they have ID that matches who they truly are and how they appear to the outside world,” he says. It’s a human rights issue, since IDs confer access to virtually every aspect of public life. When applying for jobs, public benefits, or other services that require identification, the option to affirm one’s gender identity (or omit it) can be significant. Sometimes, Silverman says, ID is the “only layer of support” for a person’s gender identity.
Gender markers are just one battleground in the struggle for gender-flexible documentation, however. Most states don’t allow people to change the gender on their birth certificates unless they undergo sex-reassignment surgery—difficult-to-define procedures that many transgender people either do not want or cannot afford. TLDEF has represented transgender people in West Virginia and South Carolina who were asked to remove wigs, makeup, and other items associated with female gender expression before taking their driver’s license photos, and the ACLU recently sued the state of Michigan for requiring proof of reassignment surgery to change gender markers on state IDs.
But Silverman senses a sea change in public attitudes on gender identity, buoyed by the high-profile stories of Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. In Newark, New York, and San Francisco, gender identity has become part of the conversation surrounding municipal IDs—one that has so far focused on the legal rights of undocumented immigrants. Silverman predicts that, moving forward, “municipalities will look to what other similar cities have done, and will take the concerns of the local transgender population into account when they plan these types of programs.”
In a 2013 report on municipal ID programs across the U.S., the Center for Popular Democracy wrote that “cities that offer ID to their residents regardless of immigration status are making a powerful statement of welcome and inclusion.” The same goes for cities who do so regardless of gender identity.