Metro Weekly

Michigan transgender residents sue secretary of state over driver’s license policy

ACLU-backed lawsuit seeks to challenge barriers to changing gender markers on state-issued IDs

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson (Credit: Secretary of State's Office).

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson (Credit: Secretary of State’s Office).

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Michigan announced on Thursday that they have filed a federal lawsuit against Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson (R), challenging a policy that makes it nearly impossible for transgender people to correct their gender markers on state driver’s licenses or other forms of identification.

The lawsuit, brought on behalf of six transgender Michiganders, is seeking a court order to declare the policy unconstitutional, arguing that it represents a “refusal by the state to recognize and respect” gender identity. Under the policy, which was instituted by Johnson upon first taking office in 2011, Michigan refuses to change the gender on a driver’s license or other form of identification unless the person produces an amended birth certificate showing the gender on the birth certificate matches their correct gender.

But for most transgender people, obtaining an amended birth certificate is a process that can be nearly impossible. According to Booth Newspapers’ MLiveDetroit, three of the plaintiffs — two born in Ohio and another in Idaho — are unable to obtain an amended birth certificate, due to Ohio and Idaho’s policies disallowing any person from changing their birth gender on vital documents. Two other plaintiffs, born in Michigan, can only obtain an amended birth certificate under Michigan law if they undergo gender confirmation surgery, which can be medically unnecessary and cost-prohibitive. And the sixth, born in South Carolina, must obtain a court order to amend his birth certificate. 

“By refusing to provide transgender people with identity documents that match their correct gender identity, the state makes it unimaginably difficult for them to navigate their everyday lives,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project. “Worse, the policy exposes an already vulnerable group to the risks of repeatedly having to reveal intimate personal medical information that, when divulged in some situations, can lead to discrimination, harassment, violence, and even death.”

The plaintiffs contend that Michigan’s policy is arbitrary, strays from department policy as practiced under previous secretaries of state, and was motivated by animus, using Johnson’s statements from her 2010 Republican primary campaign against her. The lawsuit also argues that Michigan’s policy, as instituted by Johnson, conflicts with federal policy, which does not require surgery in order to change gender markers on identity documents. According to the ACLU, more than 25 other states also do not require gender confirmation surgery in order to change one’s birth certificate.

“In stark contrast to Michigan, where the Defendant has put in place a more restrictive policy than what existed in the past, the federal government and a number of other states have modernized their policies for correcting the gender on identity documents, such as driver’s licenses or passports,” the complaint against Johnson reads. “They have done so by eliminating surgical and other burdensome requirements in favor of policies that allow a gender correction based on a sworn statement or letter from a medical providers confirming the transgender individual’s change of gender.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com