Transgender Voters Left in Cold With Patchwork of ID Laws

Some states require surgery before allowing gender change on ID.

Oct. 10, 2012— -- Kit Yan, a slam poet from New York who performs in English, Chinese and even Hawaiian Creole to enthusiastic audiences on the college tour, is confident on stage, but not when he goes to the voting booth.

His shtik is his Asian race and gender identity, a topic he knows well. Yan, who is transgender, was born a woman but for a decade has lived as a man.

"It just throws people for a loop," said Yan, 28. "I have trouble at the polling booth with people not believing that it's me."

A study from the Williams Institute, an LGBT think tank at the University of Los Angeles, estimates that about 25,000 transgender Americans could be disenfranchised in the upcoming election because of a patchwork of voter ID laws.

And it's not just voter ID requirements that are the problem.

Poll workers have discretion in giving voters a regular ballot or a provisional ballot, and bias could still affect who gets to vote. Provisional ballots can also be counted differently from regular ones.

Yan said he had been "humiliated" when a poll worker "made a big scene."

"She was yelling it out loud -- loud enough for the rest of the polling booth to hear," Yan said.

New York does not require voter ID, but advocates say the process is hard enough when a person is transgender.

"There is discrimination against trans people," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, which is on a mission to get transgender Americans to the polls.

"Voting is a perfect storm," she said. "There are ID documents and authorities with discretion. When people are given discretion, trans people get hurt."

Studies on the transgender community have also found that they are more often than not economically disadvantaged and are more likely to change addresses or even be homeless, making it harder to register to vote.

When it's difficult to get ID -- for financial, medical or other reasons -- it's hard to cast a ballot, according to Keisling. Some get so discouraged they stop trying.

NCTE has partnered with the advocacy organization GLAAD to launch a series of public service announcements, "Voting While Trans," aimed at educating and preparing transgender voters for the upcoming election.

Yan, who is featured in the PSAs, has had so many bad experiences that in this year's primaries, he asked someone he was dating to go with him.

"I was so nervous," he said. "Every time, I hesitate to go."

Voter laws vary from state to state, but according to the Williams Institute study, voters will face the most complex requirements in Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.

(Texas, Pennsylvania and South Carolina will not have laws fully in place for November. Wisconsin's law is still up in the air.)

Four of those states -- Georgia, Kansas, Indiana and Tennessee -- have strict photo ID requirements in addition to laws that require sex reassignment surgery before birth certificates or licenses can be updated.

Many transgender people cannot afford the $20,000 price tag for surgery or do not medically qualify. Most choose not to take the last surgical step in gender change, advocates say.

Claire Swinford, a 41-year-old activist, had difficulty voting in Arizona in 2010 before she moved to Missouri, where she now works for a transgender outreach group.

Swinford was in the beginnings of transition from male to female and her name had not yet legally been changed on either her driver's license or the voter registration list.

"All the information matched, however it did not match the person they were seeing," she said. "Clearly, it was a male name and clearly here was someone acting female and that caused a terrible red flag to go up with the poll volunteer."

Ignorance Plays Role in Transgender Voting

Suspecting fraud, the volunteer kept asking Swinford, "Is that you, is that you?" and repeatedly called her "sir." Eventually, the local board of elections was called and she was able to vote.

"But it took a half hour and it was very embarrassing and stressful," said Swinford. "It speaks to the misunderstanding and training of workers at polling places, who are mostly volunteers."

One of the huge issues with voter ID laws is that many in the transgender community cannot afford the steps necessary to legally change name and gender markers, even in states that allow for such changes.

Though not required for voting, it would have cost Swinford $265 to legally change her name. It costs only $4 to change it on a license in Arizona, but a doctor or psychologist visit to get the required letter is costly.

Arizona eventually put her on the early voting list and Swinford could vote by mail, a solution she suggests to other transgender voters.

Swinford has now invested in getting a federal passport, which she can use as a second form of identification, a move she recommends to others.

"We wind up playing these games, but it's not the cheapest ID in the world," she said.

Still, many say it is the ignorance in the general public about being transgender that makes it difficult to show up to vote.

Charles Meins, a 22-year-old college graduate and aspiring writer from Massachusetts, also faced bias at the polls. His state does not require voter ID, merely an address.

Meins, who was born female, had changed his name, but it had not yet been updated from his birth name.

"They told me I had already voted," he said. "I told them, 'No, I hadn't -- I would have noticed if I did.'"

The poll worker pointed to Charles Meins Jr. on the registration list -- his father, who has a different middle name.

"People think they are being polite, but they kept on calling me 'Miss,' and it got louder and louder," Meins said.

As it turns out, when he had gone to change the gender on the voting rolls, town hall officials got it wrong. Instead of marking him as male, they changed Meins to an independent.

In November, he'll vote with an absentee ballot because of all the fuss -- and he says he is moving.

"It was very jarring," Meins said. "It was less of an issue of embarrassment. I need to be allowed to vote. If I had not been in Massachusetts, I might have been denied the vote."