How ID cards expose trans people to criminalisation and violence

Last week, there was a shocked reaction to UK government proposals forcing trans people to provide their ‘previous name’ in order to register to vote. This follows US laws requiring ID to vote – mostly the Republican Party targeting the Democratic Party’s voter base of people of colour less likely to have sufficient documentation, but also affecting up to 24,000 trans voters. While the government has backtracked in not forcing those who changed their name more than 12 months ago to disclose their ‘dead name’, trans people remain constricted by bureaucratic hurdles overall – and criminalised by having conflicting documents.

The initial UK proposals would require either online registration that couldn’t guarantee trans people’s privacy, or manually registering reams of – often conflicting – documents, namely a passport and birth certificate. While UK statistics are vague, a Williams Institute study estimated 28% of eligible trans voters in US states with voter ID laws did not have relevant or up-to-date documentation corresponding with their gender identity. There are myriad barriers for trans people in this process: some states require evidence of gender realignment surgery to have their identity formally recognised, while homelessness and unemployment further limits the ability to obtain correct documentation.

The study also found 47% of trans people had experienced harassment for presenting the wrong ID – e.g. driving licenses that do not match gender identity to the police or at a bar – while 3% had faced assault. Mara Keisling, executive director of the US National Center for Transgender Equality, states ‘Since 9/11, it’s become … incredibly important to have accurate and consistent identification.’ Opponents of loosening restrictions on obtaining documents – namely requiring realignment surgery that is unaffordable for most US trans people – fear it would lead to identity fraud. But trans people are already criminalised as ‘fraudulent’.

The post-9/11 framework has been particularly pertinent for British trans people. The last Labour government’s compulsory ID cards scheme, scrapped by the coalition government in 2010, was a key plank of War on Terror legislation – and had massive ramifications for trans people. ID cards were to be integrated with passports, but trans people had to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate to change gender identity on their ID card, or were compelled to hold two cards – one with their assigned sex and another corresponding with their gender identity. Trans groups were concerned not only about the bureaucratic nightmare of different rules in Europe where only the card showing one’s assigned sex would be recognised. They also feared that conflicting documentation would expose trans people to criminalisation and harassment.

Jacqui Smith, the former Home Secretary responsible for implementing the scheme, said ID cards would provide ‘protection against identity fraud for the individual and help in protecting our communities against criminals, illegal immigrants and terrorists trying to exploit multiple identities’. Ms. Smith connected a lack of documentation with criminality. Similarly to undocumented immigrants, trans people are made vulnerable by a lack of sufficient documentation. Indeed, queer and/or trans undocumented youth are leading the immigrant rights movement in the US. Known as ‘undocuqueers’, they’re further exposed by discrimination against undocumented immigrants – with even greater need to flee their homes without documentation and to remain undetected. 39% of undocumented trans people in the US have lost their jobs due to bias, while 21% have lost their homes. In addition, 25% have experienced physical assault and 19% sexual assault in work.

Due to the cycle of unemployment, homelessness, lack of affordable gender-appropriate healthcare, and indeed hypersexualisation, many trans people are sex workers – which doesn’t demand matching documents. In the US, 21% of trans women and 47% of black trans people are incarcerated in their lifetimes, particularly through the criminalisation of sex work – a phenomenon known as ‘walking while trans’ which profiles trans women in the public space as sex workers. ID cards would have further impacted trans people by intensifying criminalisation of sex workers without documentation.

Trans people are marked as inherently suspect for ‘trying to exploit multiple identities’. There were fears ID cards would increase police harassment and state surveillance against people of colour, namely black and/or Muslim communities. For trans people, documentation that contradicts with ID cards plays on the idea of trans people as fraudulent and suspect – as ‘deceptive’. Even the language of trans people ‘passing’ as cis infers criminality. Trans people have been prosecuted in the UK for ‘sexual intimacy by fraud’ for not disclosing their assigned sex to sexual partners. Yet those who have killed or assaulted trans people after finding out their assigned sex have often evaded prosecution through the ‘trans panic’ defence as in the first trial of Gwen Araujo’s killers in the US.

Trans people do not have the same options cis LGB people have to ‘come out’ as an empowering and autonomous act: rather they more accutely fear the state will out them by failing to recognise their identity – and punish them as criminal in the process. They have reason to fear any compulsory registration, such as Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy that would out many trans people.

Trans people are ‘suspect’ because they break gendered codes and structures. That this often entails being given insufficient and inaccurate documentation by the state classes them as criminal, and – joining black and/or Muslim communities – as subversive. When cis LGB people lament the state’s hounding of Alan Turing as portrayed in The Imitation Game, they must acknowledge how trans people are still criminalised as sex workers and undocumented immigrants, and regarded as a subversive class.


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