Friday, April 29, 2011

Birth Gender and the DMV

          The President isn’t the only one having birth certificate problems this week.  I finally went to get my Ohio driver’s license and had a little snafu of my own, thank you very much.  See, you know how President O. has a short form and a long form and he finally paraded out the long form so the media could pretend it was “news” and Donald Trump could sigh about how relieved he was to get that over with so we could all move on to real issues?  Well, I have a short form and a shorter form, and I chose to parade my shorter form at the D.M.V. and, well … here’s what happened:
          Moon Boy and Ankle Biter recently started preschool, so, for a few hours on a few mornings, I can charge out into the no-touching, line-waiting world and get a few things done.  And let me tell you when you’ve spent two years with small creatures attached to your legs, waiting in line without them becomes an endorphin producing experience.  I replaced the glasses Ankle Biter threw on the floor one too many times.  And registered the car we drove for a month with the former owner’s license plates.   And filed our taxes on time.  So next on the list was a new license. 
          I thought I’d be able to get my license when we registered the car, but not so.  In the end Darling Virgo and I went together to three different offices to get the car registered and none of them doubled as a license testing center.  Well I was determined to preserve the sanctity of these precious mornings and vowed this would be the last one I’d give to the Department Motor Vehicles.  I made sure I knew exactly what I needed for the license--birth certificate, name change documentation, social security card, and Maine license--and found everything the night before.  I checked it over three times and grabbed my passport (that Golden Key of identification) for back-up just in case.
          I chose my clothes carefully in the days preceding license-getting morning, to be sure my favorite navy blue, hooded sweatshirt was not smeared with almond butter when the day of my DMV photo shoot arrived.  I zipped it up over an old undershirt and made do with my newest pair of jeans which stretched a bit since I got them and already have a big knee-hole from playing “cat and mice” with the boys.  But jeans won’t show up in the picture, right?  No time to take a shower and still get everyone off to school, but I did take a moment to shave off my chin hairs and inspect my hair hair which has grown out a little longer than I prefer and so doesn’t survive a night’s sleep without getting a tall platform look on top.  I decided to throw on a ski cap until I arrived at the DMV (that ought to squelch it a bit) and  grabbed my puffy L.L. Bean vest as we ran out the door.  I was feeling pretty good.
          I dropped the boys at preschool and sped across town to the license test center.  I had a book with me, all my documentation, and I was ready to pass any kind of test they wanted to throw my way.
          I walked in and headed straight to the info desk where I told the man behind the counter what exactly  I meant to accomplish in the next 1.5 hours.  I handed him my documents confidently and watched as he reviewed them.  He got hung up on my birth certificate right away. 
          I should say that as I went through my files the night before I came across two forms of my birth certificate.  The first was on an eight-and-a-half by eleven sheet of paper with that certificate-y design in the background indicating its official and original nature.  The second was a wallet-sized piece of blue card stock, issued and stamped by the clerk of the town where I grew up.  This is the man who coached my bothers and sister in little league and ran town meetings with my dad.  He’s the one who went golfing the first day same-sex couples could marry in Massachusetts, knowing Darling Virgo and I would arrive at his office and have to legalize our union elsewhere.  He gave me that little blue card on my eighteenth birthday when my dad and I walked up to the town hall and got me registered to do my civic duty.  So the night before license-getting morning I grabbed that little card, rather than the big certificate, because it fit neatly in my passport with the other documentation and I could carry them all in my back pocket.
          The info-desk man looked at the little blue card and asked me what it was.
          When I told him it was my birth certificate he pointed out that the only information it displayed were my name at birth, the town I was born in, and the day it all happened.  It didn’t even have my parents’ names on it.  I hadn’t ever noticed that.  But it turned out he didn’t care about my parents names.  Because as he studied it a little more he realized:
          “It doesn’t even say your gender.”
          This bothered him a lot.  He called over his supervisor to have a look.
          “What is this thing?” she asked, picking up the little blue document good ol’ Mr. Gone Golfing had stamped with his own hands, giving me proof of the day I was born.  That’s what a birth certificate’s for, right?  To prove how old you are?  I mean, I understand it has other relevance.  If I were registering for kindergarten it might be expected to prove who my parents are so they can pick me up from school.  But I wasn’t registering for kindergarten.  I was transferring my driver’s license (with eighteen years of safe driving) from one state to another.
          “If it doesn’t say your gender, it’s not a vital record,” she announced.
          I stared at the two of them, thinking what I would do next, and letting them sit for a minute in the swamp of our bureaucracy.  There on the desk was my Maine license proving my gender circa 2008 if they cared to have a look.  And there next to it lay my passport, displaying my 2005 gender.  But what really mattered in the question of whether or not I would be allowed to drive in Ohio, was my gender in 1974. 
          In a flashing second I saw this moment for the beautiful opportunity it was: a chance for trans-ally heroism.  I mean, here I am, swimming in privilege, right?  I was born female and have lived thirty-six years claiming the pronoun “she.”  Never wanted to be a man, never tried it for a day.  Never felt betrayed by my body or resented it for bleeding.  Never winced when asked to check a box next to my gender on College Board exams, or opinion surveys, or at the Department of Motor Vehicles. 
          So the power was mine, really.  I had nothing to lose in a little gender tousle.  Here was my chance to look these fine folks square in their buckeyes and ask what possible relevance my 1974 gender had on my 2011 driver’s license.  I looked down for a moment, took a deep breath to prepare for my rant, and saw what I looked like: a taller, butcher version of  Michael J. Fox in his Back to the Future get-up.  With a ski-cap.
          And then I wondered what possible relevance did my 1974 gender have on my 2011 Ohio driver’s license.  Must my birth gender match my now gender?  Might they actually withhold the hotly desired document until I squandered another of my blessed mornings and returned with the other birth certificate?
          And my raging trans-ally fire?  Well let’s just say it started to sputter there for a minute as I realized something crucial: these people don’t know I’ve lived my entire life claiming the pronoun that matches the genitalia I was born with.  Maybe they’ll be like the woman in the public restroom the other day who offered to take my daughter in with her, because she thought I would be using the men’s room.  Maybe they would be like the kids at my daughter’s school who told her they saw her dad drop her off last week.  Just because I’ve always claimed the “she” pronoun, doesn’t mean that’s what everyone else assigns me.  And now that I think about it, since we moved to the Buckeye Nation I’ve answered to “he” a lot more often than I’m used to.  So looking back at the scoreboard, the only thing we've established here is that we have no proof of my gender as it was officially assigned, by the doctor who was there when my mother pushed me out.
          I was determined to walk out of that building with my license.
          So I sighed and decided to abandon self righteous in favor of annoyed.  I put my elbow up on the counter, leaned my head on my hand and I sighed a little more.  I said I’d never had a problem using that little blue card before.  I reminded them they had my previous license and passport (did you hear me? I said passport!) right there before them.  And I waited.
          It was as if she hadn’t even noticed them there, so taken aback was she by her inability to know whether I was male or female thirty-six years ago.  She looked over my passport and license.  And was I imagining things, or were we all three just a little relieved to have some official government proof of my present day gender?  Because, you know, nobody knows my gender like the government knows my gender.  And (poof!) here I am all swelled up in my non-trans privilege again, because if the government claims I’m a she, and I claim I’m a she, then I must have always been a she, because … well uh ... because I certainly don’t look like a he who’s trying to be a she.  I mean, I don’t know how much an Ohio DMV bureaucrat knows about queer stuff, but if they know anything about anything they know that.  I wouldn’t have on a navy blue ski hat on a fifty degree day if I were really working at looking like a woman.  I wouldn’t have worn torn men’s jeans that sag around my butt like a sixty year old plumber.  I would have cabinets full of make-up which I would use it to hide the stubble on my chin.  I would have a purse in which to carry a normal size birth certificate so I didn’t have to reach around to my manly back pocket and pull out that little blue piece of card stock.  I would have a manicure! 
          It was like a poem, or a proverb, or something Confucius might have thought to say.  Because suddenly, with all that official documentation announcing my current she-ness, my men’s department attire didn’t take away from the point at all, instead it proved I had been a woman always. 
          We all worked this out silently.  Them: looking back and forth between each document.  Me: waiting and sighing, waiting and sighing.  And eventually she told me to hide away that silly little blue card and proceed to the next desk with the passport and Maine license. 
          So I passed the written test, despite my foolish answer that everyone in the car should wear a seatbelt at all times.  (Incorrect!  Don’t waste time buckling your back seat passengers … this is Ohio!)  And then I sat for the picture.  I wondered about the buckeye cop who will one day pull me over because the left headlight on the minivan has been out since October.  I wondered if he would sense any incongruity between my gender and the one stated on my new license, and how he would feel about that.
          Then I filled out the rest of the form.  The identifying characteristics that everyone--the State of Ohio, he, and me--depends on to be sure I am who I say I am.  I had never thought of the me part of this equation before.  I knew these identifiers were important to the cop, but now I saw how someday I might need them to get my back.  To say, “Hey buckeye cop, this here female is Elizabeth Rose-Cohen, and don’t you say otherwise buster.”  I filled in the blanks with renewed solemnity.  Height: 5’11”.  No. 5’9”.  Weight: 160?  No again. 170.  Eye Color: Brown.  Hair Color: Br… 
          Hair color!  I have answered this question many times in my life and always I have begun with the letters “B-R.”  I knew that inevitably the number next to my weight would change.  And that I wouldn’t always be able to claim the height my old basketball coaches used to say I was.  And I’ve been called “he” more times than I’ve been to Canada.  But I never (never!) realized there would come a day when the answer to the question of my hair color might not begin with the letters “B-R.”  Of course it doesn’t say it anywhere that they’re looking for my now hair color.  They could be looking for my birth hair color, right?  Or maybe they’d be interested in my hair color circa 1992.  Or 2004.  Which vintage, I wonder, would be most helpful to the cop as he’s inspecting my overgrown curls, trying to sum up whether or not I’m really the Elizabeth Rose-Cohen I say I am? 
          I considered asking for a mirror to assess the ever more salty situation up there, but instead I asked how long the license is good for.
          Four years.
          Four years, I thought.   I ought to be able to make it four more years.
          And I filled in the rest of the letters: O-W-N.


  1. You are a brilliant writer! So sorry you had to go through this mess. I'd like to forward this blog to a friend of mine if you don't mind. I think he would like it a lot.

  2. Liz, yes please... forward to whomever you want. Thanks for reading! Hope you are well.

  3. You are amazing, Liz! I can't wait to share this with a few friends. I miss you guys lots. I hope someday that life will bring us back together for a visit - for now I plug along through school and don't do much traveling. I hope the rest of Ohio is treating you ok and I look forward to reading other posts. So glad you posted this on FB so I'd find it. :)

  4. Just when I thought the DMV couldn't get any more hellish. I'm glad you didn't have to leave without your license. The most simple of processes could easily turn into 2-3 day adventures when it involves the DMV. I remember a couple of very confused women in the ladies room back when I had a bald head. Seems they hadn't immediately noticed my DDs :)

  5. Hi Liz, I just found your blog through Facebook. So great to reconnect and - seriously? - this post is fantastic. Can't wait to read more.

  6. For a few moments in time, you had your very own "Birthers" demanding to see your long form Birth Certificate! You should feel very important. ;)

  7. "Because, you know, nobody knows my gender like the government knows my gender." Woohoo! :)

  8. @ Sarah: Right? All this fuss about big government trying to provide us health care and education! Meanwhile Florida is starting drug tests for anyone receiving state support, and Ohio is fussing about my gender.