Joey Ovalle, a 22-year-old transgender student at the University of Texas at Austin, has transitioned into living as a man. But his driver's license, which carries his legal name and hasn't been updated to reflect his identity, still creates discomfort for him in some settings — not the least of which are polling places.
“Imagine if the polling place is quiet," he said. "If I start explaining that I’m transgender and that’s why I don’t look like my ID, all the people around me are going to hear it. Suddenly, it feels like I have a target on my back.”
Texas' voter ID law, which was passed in 2011 and will face its biggest statewide test yet in Tuesday's primaries, presents an added hurdle for transgender voters, who advocates fear may be discouraged from showing up at the polls. Lisa Scheps, operations manager for Equality Texas, an LGBT advocacy group, called the law "blatantly discriminatory" because transgender people face challenges in obtaining government-issued photo ID that accurately depicts their name and gender.
Determining discrepancies in IDs is left to the discretion of poll workers, who are trained at the county level with materials provided by the office of the Texas secretary of state, which oversees statewide elections. Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the office, said there is no language on transgender voters in any training materials, but that poll workers use their best judgment and are taught to err on the side of the voter.
“What poll workers are trained to do is look at the totality of the circumstances, and this doesn’t pertain just to transgender people; this is in any case,” Pierce said.
To get his gender and legal name changed on his driver's license, Ovalle — who had a double mastectomy in December — would have to provide the Department of Public Safety with a court order proving that he has undergone a sex change. This type of surgery, which is expensive and rarely covered by insurance companies, isn’t accessible to a majority of the transgender community, whose unemployment rate is twice that of the general population, according to a 2011 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
According to the report, 47 percent of transgender Texans report having been verbally harassed or disrespected in places of public accommodation, including government offices.
“Whether or not everything matches up on their ID, [transgender people] are afraid to even go vote because they feel that they have to show this burden of proof on their identity," Scheps said. "They’re afraid of what people are going to say.”
No data is available on the number of transgender people Texas' voter ID law could affect. The latest census, in 2010, did not include an option for participants to note whether they were transgender. But a 2012 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA Schoool of Law estimated that more than 25,000 transgender voters lived in nine states with strict voter ID laws.
Pierce said that in the November 2013 elections, the first time the voter ID laws were put into effect statewide, the secretary of state’s office received no reports of anyone being turned away from the polls for problems related to their ID.
Election officials from some of the state’s 10 most populous counties said there were few instances in which voters were unable to cast their ballots or had to cast provisional ballots because of questions about their ID — but that thousands of voters were required to sign affidavits affirming their identity before voting.
Ovalle said he’s not sure what will happen the next time he goes to the polls, but that he still feels compelled to vote.
“Trans people are more visible now in society than we ever have been, and we’re not going away,” he said. “That’s why we have to vote.”
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