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ACLU sues Michigan over transgender driver's licenses

Kate Wells

The ACLU of Michigan is suing Ruth Johnson, the Secretary of State, for making it difficult – and sometimes impossible – for transgender people to get a license that accurately reflects their gender.

The policy essentially requires proof of a surgical sex change

If a transgender person wants to change the gender listed on their license or state ID, Johnson’s policy requires them to first amend the gender listed on their birth certificate.

But to change your Michigan birth certificate, you first have to show proof of a surgical sex change, according to state law.

The ACLU argues that’s a very expensive, often medically unnecessary surgery that only 33% of transgender people report having.  

Meanwhile three states, including Ohio, won’t let residents amend the gender on their birth certificates at all, according to the ACLU.

Why does it matter if a transgender person has an accurate ID?

Transgender people essentially "out" themselves as trans every time they show their IDs, if that ID shows the sex they were assigned at birth.

Credit Kate Wells
Tina Seitz with her son, right, is a transgender woman also represented in the suit.

And the ACLU argues that makes them vulnerable to hostility, discrimination, and even violence – not to mention unnecessary complications whenever they want to vote, go through security at the airport, or just cash a check.

“It should be my decision about whether to tell somebody or not that … I was assigned a female gender at birth, and right now I don’t have that choice anytime I want to buy alcohol, use a check, interact with certain state officials who really just don’t need to know that kind of information,” says Codie Stone, a transgender man who’s one of six people represented in the lawsuit.

“It puts me in a potentially dangerous situation because I really don’t know how people are going to react when they see that ‘F’ [for female] on my drivers license," Stone says.  

"I would really like to live in a Michigan that lets me decide when total strangers should get information about my life and my background that they may not be able to handle with the kind of grace, maturity and acceptance that I hope we all would have,” says Stone.

"It puts me in a potentially dangerous situation because I really don't know how people are going to react when they see that 'F' on my driver's license."

 Tina Seitz, a transgender woman, is also represented in the lawsuit. 

"At one point in time, Michigan recognized my correct gender on my state driver's license. However, when my license was re-issued, I was incorrectly assigned a male gender marker," she says in a written statement. "That was due to the Secretary of State's revised policy."

Why is Michigan different from other states? 

This policy has only been on the books since Secretary of State Ruth Johnson began requiring an amended birth certificate in 2011, according to the ACLU.

Credit Secretary of State's office / http://www.michigan.gov/sos/0,4670,7-127-1640_9150_9166-251108--,00.html
Secretary of State Ruth Johnson

An ACLU attorney says they’ve repeatedly talked with Johnson’s office over four years about the burden they believe the policy creates.

A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office says they cannot comment on pending litigation, but offered the following via email:

“For background on the process itself:

  • Under current law, we are required to verify a person’s identity before issuing a driver’s license or ID card.
  • One of the documents that is required is a birth certificate. The information listed in a driver’s license and ID card must match the documents that are presented.
  • If an individual presents the department with a birth certificate that reflects a change in the person’s sex, the driver and ID file would be changed to reflect that information.”

But the ACLU argues that Michigan’s policy is far more restrictive than other states, and even the federal government.
“Michigan not only has one of the worst, most onerous and prohibitive policies for gender changes on licenses and IDs, but also one that is at odds with more than 25 states that have no surgery requirements for gender changes,” says ACLU staff attorney Jay Kaplan.

“Indeed, persons can obtain a gender changes [sic] on a U.S. passport, social security, veterans and immigration records by providing a sworn statement from a medical provider confirming a change of gender,” says Kaplan. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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