May 03, 2016

Correcting Gender on IDs a Painful Hurdle for Transgender Texans

Reporting Texas

Cavan O'Raghallaigh, a legislative volunteer at Equality Texas, is attempting to create a legal pathway for transgender Texans to change their gender marker on IDs and birth certificates. Jack Vritis/Reporting Texas

Cavan O’Raghallaigh, a legislative volunteer at Equality Texas, is attempting to create a legal pathway for transgender Texans to change their gender marker on IDs and birth certificates. Jack Vrtis/Reporting Texas

Caomhán O’Raghallaigh was born and reared female. He got married and bore two children. But for much of his life, he fought depression and suicidal tendencies. He fought an inner voice that told him he was a male. For more than 50 years, he tried to ignore it.

During those years of struggle and a descent into suicidal thoughts, he started a journal as a way to manage his turmoil. Gradually, the journal evolved into a novel about a boy who was gay. One day, the realization hit him.

“I was going, ‘Good God, I have been blind. This is me,’ ” said O’Raghallaigh, 58, whose name is pronounced Cavan O’Rolly. “I could feel that the guy that has always been in my head…he moved into the rest of me. I could feel it in my skin.”

In 2012, he told his spouse of 31 years and two grown children. They were relieved that he could now live as a happy man. It was no trouble to win court approval to change his name, and he choose an Irish name inspired by research he’d done for his book. The next step was to correct the gender on his state identification documents. That would not be so easy.

For transgender people who have begun their transitions – such as changing how they dress or undergoing medical treatment – correcting the gender on identification documents is important. But Texas is one of 19 states with no statutory guidelines on changing  the gender on driver licenses and birth certificates. That means judges can and do refuse to issue the court order required for the change.

“Many judges think it is not legal to change your sex. If you are a girl. you stay a girl,” said Claire Bow, a retired lawyer who volunteers at a University of Texas free legal clinic that helps low-income transgender people change their documents. “Stories about dangerous trans people in bathrooms make judges less willing to help us. The judges believe the untruths.”

Controversies about transgender issues are arising across the country. Several states, including North Carolina, have passed laws requiring transgender people to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates and that protect businesses that refuse to serve trans or gay customers against discrimination claims. Whether there’s an M or an F on a driver license may seem mundane, but having the wrong gender creates daily hassles for transgender people, said Chuck Smith, chief executive of Equality Texas, which works on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Having accurate documents is “a prerequisite of everyday life in order to function in society, in order to maintain a job, in order to basically do anything,” he said.

State law gives the Texas Health and Human Services Commission the authority to correct the gender marker on birth certificates. The commission in turn requires a court order to make that correction, according to Katie Sprinkle, a Dallas lawyer who transitioned from male to female in 2011. The absence of any state law listing requirements for the obtaining the order has led to a patchwork of procedures for changing gender identity around the state.

“Many judges, specifically those that are very conservative, feel that they do not have the authority to do it because it has not been set out by the Legislature,” Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle recalled a humiliating experience at a store in an Austin mall. She had started transitioning to a woman but her ID still said she was male. When the cashier noticed the difference, she called the store manager and said in a loud voice that other customers could hear, “I got a customer. It is dressed as a girl but its ID says it’s a boy.”

Sprinkle complained to the company’s district manager and later was told that the cashier had been fired.

Once a gender-change case has been assigned to a court, some judges require a criminal background check. That involves submitting fingerprints to the Department of Public Safety to assure that someone with a criminal past is not trying to hide from law enforcement.

Judges might also require letters from a doctor and a therapist. The doctor must provide details of the treatment the person has undergone, such as surgery or hormone treatment. The therapist must attest, among other issues, that the person meets the criteria for gender transition, including a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, in which there is a mismatch between a person’s biological sex and gender identity.

Even with those documents, many judges balk.

“You have so many judges who fall into the category of, well, if they don’t tell me how to do it, I am not going to do it,” Sprinkle said. “And that creates nightmares for people who live in an area where they don’t have judges who are willing to do it.”

O’Raghallaigh, 58, lives in Round Rock but decided not to attempt to get a court order in Williamson County, which is politically conservative. His attorney had had success in Dallas County, so he went there instead.

“Judges have the power to tell you, ‘You don’t know who you are,’ and they are not going to let you be who you are. That is pretty humiliating,” he said.

After spending more than $2,000, O’Raghallaigh got the court order to get his gender changed in 2012.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Houston, has been trying since 2007 to get legislation passed that would help transgender people more easily correct their state identification papers by laying out a procedure for judges to follow. “Our current patchwork system creates a barrier for people seeking to correct their vital statistic information and increases their legal costs,” Coleman said.

There has been no progress. A bill he introduced last session was referred to the State Affairs Committee but did not get a hearing. Spokespeople for State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the committee chairman, did not return several requests for comment.

A few months after he started transitioning to be a male, O’Raghallaigh started working as a staffer for former state Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat. “I began physical transition as the 83rd Session started so that decision-makers and their staffers could see what really happened when a person was in physical transition. I wanted people to find out that I’m just another person with a job to do,” he said.

Coleman said that he will try again next year. “I plan to present the bill every year I am here or until it passes,” he said.

O’Raghallaigh said he plans to have more surgery to continue his transition and plans to train others on effective strategies for talking about the issue with legislators and staffers. And he is taking the advice of a friend: “I need to have a long-term view.”