Progress Shows in Court to Change Michigan ID Policy

POST BY Jay Kaplan LGBT Legal Project Staff Attorney

As I sat in Judge Edmund’s courtroom Wednesday afternoon, listening to arguments in our case of Love v. Johnson, I felt this strong surge of emotion inside of me. 

This is because—after so many years of both callous disregard and disinterest by Michigan public policy makers on everything, from civil rights, access to health care to crimes of violence—the transgender community finally got their day in court and finally got their chance to have their concerns heard.  

Listening to attorney John Knight, from the ACLU National's LGBT Project, articulate the flaws in the Michigan Secretary of State’s policy on gender marker changes for driver’s licenses and state IDs—a policy that makes it virtually impossible for transgender people to obtain accurate identity documents in Michigan—brought me back to meetings we had four years ago with the Secretary of State’s office.  At those meetings, we also pointed out how unworkable this policy was for Michigan transgender residents and how not having identity documents that accurately reflect their gender identity and expression put them at risk for harassment, discrimination and violence.  

The Secretary of State’s office was resolute, unmovable. The policy stays, despite going against what the federal government and majority of states have done regarding gender changes on identity documents. And so here we are four years later, after many more transgender people are being forced to present inaccurate driver's licenses and IDs that disclose highly personal medical information, asking a federal court to decide whether this policy needs to be changed again.

In court, Judge Edmunds refused to let Eric Grill, an attorney for the State of Michigan, imply that being transgender is simply a matter of waking up one morning and deciding you’re a different gender. She made it clear to him that a person’s decision to come out as transgender is a highly serious, personal decision that occurs after years of internal struggle and emotional turmoil. When Judge Edmunds cited statistics that transgender people face discrimination and potential violence in their lives on a daily basis,  I thought about what had just happened in Houston the other day.

Houston voters resoundingly rejected a human rights ordinance that would have protected LGBT people against discrimination. Opponents waged a war against transgender people to defeat the ordinance, employing myths, untruths, and fear mongering about transgender persons in bathrooms. And leading the demonizing and demagoguery against trans people were political leaders like Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick.

Listening to Judge Edmunds make it clear that she understood how Michigan’s policy undermines the dignity of trans people, the contrast between Houston and a federal court in Detroit, made this cisgender man want to cry. And as I looked around the courtroom I saw several members of the transgender community with tears in their eyes.

It’s always hard to predict from an oral argument just how the court will decide, but I’m feeling optimistic. And I believe that yesterday, Michigan’s transgender community had a chance to tell part of their story in federal court and Judge Edmunds was listening.

She made it clear to him that a person’s decision to come out as transgender is a highly serious, personal decision that occurs after years of internal struggle and emotional turmoil.