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Last published at August 10, 2009 at 1:29 AM

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State reverses policy that made it harder to get ID reflecting gender change

In January, over objections of the transgender community, the state Department of Licensing made it tougher to change gender information on driver's licenses, citing goals of fighting terrorism and reducing identity theft. Last week it abruptly changed course, not just reverting to the original policy — but making it easier than before.

Seattle Times staff reporter

It's hard to say for sure how many of the 80 or so transgender Washingtonians who change their driver's-license information each year might be terrorists.

But just in case, the state was ready.

In January — after three years of discussion — the Department of Licensing made it tougher to change gender information on driver's licenses, citing goals of fighting terrorism and reducing identity theft.

Last week it abruptly changed course, not just reverting to the original policy — but even making it easier than before.

"It just didn't seem to make sense," explained Doron Maniece, acting assistant director at the department.

Driver's licenses are considered by the government to be "foundational" documents, "core to identifying who you are," said Jonathan Seib, policy adviser for the Governor's Office.

For transgender people, having a driver's license with the wrong gender makes simple things, like boarding an airplane or cashing a check, that much harder.

"You don't realize how much you depend on having an accurate driver license until you're involved in a discussion like this," Seib said.

Washington used to require people changing the gender marker on their license only to submit a letter from a doctor saying the person "initiated appropriate clinical treatment." That could mean anything from living full time as another gender to undergoing sex-change surgery. Washington was among a small number of states that did not require the surgery.

Out with the old

But in January came an additional restriction: Applicants also must present a birth certificate showing their new gender.

"If you're not in the state you're born in, it makes it really hard," said Christina Ness, who applied for a changed license just after the January policy took effect.

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Ness had to apply for a changed birth certificate from California, where she was born, so she submitted a doctor's note and paid a few hundred dollars for a court order, both documenting that she had undergone reassignment surgery.

The California office never contacted her.

"It's a nightmare," she said. "They'll take your money and sit on it."

Washington's Department of Licensing said it never saw California respond to any request for a birth-certificate change, despite the state having a written policy allowing it, according to a spokeswoman.

Some states, like Idaho and Tennessee, have policies that prohibit changes on birth certificates.

Washington's policy allowed exemptions for people from such states. So, in practice, the January requirement wasn't that you change your birth certificate — it was that you tried, said Seib.

Transgender advocates asked, with so many exceptions, why have the requirement in the first place?

"It didn't matter what we did. No matter what arguments we made, they were going to go forward with the birth-certificate policy," said Spencer Bergstedt, a lawyer and transgender advocate who was involved in the policy discussions. "We were beating our heads against a wall."

It wasn't until last week that the state — despite the transgender community arguing that point for the three years before the policy was enacted — finally listened.

"Common sense ultimately prevailed," said Mark Rupp, director of the governor's Washington, D.C., office. "The community had it right."

In with the new

So on Wednesday, Washington again changed its policy, not only returning to the "doctor's note" standard, but making it even slightly easier.

"I'm tickled pink," said Ness, who received her new license under the January policy after waiting several months for an exemption. "If people in the future don't have to go through that, that's fantastic."

The new policy has one small difference from the pre-2009 policy: It allows applicants to submit a letter from a psychologist in lieu of a licensed physician.

The current policy still requires an altered birth certificate for applicants who want to change their gender on an enhanced driver's license, which serves as a passport for citizens crossing the Canadian border. The birth-certificate requirement, which stemmed from post-9/11 discussions, is touted by the Licensing Department as a strategy to prevent forgery and bolster counter-terrorism efforts.

"I was hoping Washington would come around and change things," said Elayne Wylie, who works at the Ingersoll Gender Center in Seattle. "Being in Washington state just got a lot easier."

Officials from the Licensing Department and the Governor's Office said the catalyst for the change was a meeting initiated by members of the transgender community just days after the January policy was implemented. National and international experts on transgender issues joined the meeting, answering state officials' questions and highlighting the conflicting nature of the policy's exemption methods.

"It was the opportunity for all the questions to be asked and for the real meaning of the policy to be debated," said Marsha Botzer, a leading transgender advocate who chaired the meeting.

In the end, it all came down to the exemption policy, and, "It wasn't very fair to do it for some and not for all," said Selena Davis, Licensing Department spokeswoman.

Lindsay Toler: 206-464-2463 or ltoler@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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