Fake IDs for Social Justice

Postcard from New York

NEW YORK—I never expected that I would end up spending my summer making fake IDs.

These ID cards do not falsely purport to be state-issued—like ones the under-21 crowd might use to try to buy alcohol. They do not assist their cardholders in breaking the law, but rather to help alleviate the difficulty of day-to-day living in society.

These IDs are meant to assist people whose names and genders listed on their state IDs do not match with the names they use and the genders they present everyday. This dilemma may not have crossed your mind if you have always felt fully comfortable in the “male” or “female” sex category that is listed on your driver’s license.

Identification documents are a tool of gatekeeping—just think of all the buildings and services that are accessible only with a Harvard ID. For people who do not look like the legal sex listed on their ID, access to even the most basic facilities can be incredibly difficult. I see people who are denied entrance to college buildings, gyms and public pools because they present themselves as a gender that is different from what is listed on their ID.

If the name and sex listed on one’s visa, social security card or other work-related documentation does not match a transgender person’s presentation, then that person will have a very hard time getting employment, especially when documentation troubles coupled with societal hatred of transgender people lead to job discrimination.

(For those unfamiliar with the term, “transgender” refers to people whose internal sense of gender differs from the male or female sex they were assigned at birth. “Transsexual” generally refers to people who have taken or plan to take medical steps such as surgery or hormone treatment to modify their bodies to more appropriately reflect their gender identity. “Intersex” describes people born with sex chromosomes, external genitalia or an internal reproductive system that is not considered “standard” for either the male or female sex.)


When the legal sex listed on one’s ID “outs” someone as transgender, that person is put at risk for harassment and violence. Violence against transgender people is endemic in our society, but such hate crimes are difficult to enumerate because they often go unreported due to risks that the charges will not be taken seriously and that the crime victim will be blamed. When a transgender person reports a hate crime, they are often arrested themselves, says Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

People can and do legally change their names for many reasons, such as marriage or divorce. But people who try to change from a name that is recognized as one gender to one that is recognized as another face specific hurdles in their name change process.

Transgender people who request name changes in court generally need to file medical affidavits as well as publish an announcement in a newspaper that outs them as transgender. To change one’s legal sex, one must produce evidence that one has undergone even more medical treatment. These barriers often prevent transgender people from having legal documentation that matches their gender identity. Furthermore, more pressing survival issues such as accessing safe housing and health care and avoiding harassment and violence often take precedence over documentation concerns.

Gender gatekeeping happens in many ways that don’t all involve ID cards. There are stereotypes about what a man or a woman should be, and of who counts as a man or a woman. In the last century, the women’s and gay and lesbian movements helped break down some aspects of these stereotypes.

But other gender stereotypes are still going strong, and people who do not easily fit into the binary code of man/woman and male/female are punished for gender transgressions. Because of severe and persistent discrimination in housing, employment and education, transgender people remain disproportionately in poverty. Most of the institutions that poor people have to navigate (e.g. homeless shelters, group foster homes, prisons and jails, drug treatment, etc.) are gender-segregated, and for people whose gender identity or expression does not match their legal sex, these systems become especially inaccessible and unsafe.

To try to help address these issues, I’m spending my summer at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), a non-profit organization that works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine our gender identity and expression, regardless of income, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence. SRLP advocates for the rights of transgender, transsexual, intersex and other gender variant people.

On one particularly hot day this summer, some transgender teenagers were taking refuge from the heat in our air-conditioned office and talking about how they really wanted to go to the pool. They had legitimate concerns that the attendant at the public pool would scrutinize them because they are transgender, would demand identification and then turn them away from the pool or would force them to use a locker room that was inappropriate to their gender identity. Then we came up with an idea: why not make our own IDs? There’s nothing against the law about issuing membership cards, as is done by countless places of employment, clubs, parties and organizations.

I quickly developed a reputation as designated ID-maker. On the IDs I make, people list their own names, the names they use. For the “Gender” field on the template (notice that the field isn’t called “Sex”), people can write in whatever they want. Male, female, transgender, MTF (male-to-female), FTM (female-to-male), intersex—all of these are fine options, as is any other identification people want to list. People are also welcome to leave the space blank if they do not want to define or disclose their gender identity.

I believe strongly that people have a right to self-define their own gender identity. People have struggled hard to find their own words for describing and affirming their own personal gender, and I am not going to be a gender gatekeeper who tells people that they can’t be the identity that they are living.

These IDs won’t work in every situation, but they are a start. In addition to helping people gain access to regulated spaces, they can also give people the confidence that goes along with having an authority officially back up their identity. And armed with these SRLP IDs, the teenagers were able to get into the pool and cool off.

Stephanie M. Skier ’05, a Crimson editor, is a social studies and women’s studies concentrator in Currier House. She is spending this summer getting the kind of gender studies education that doesn’t happen in a Harvard classroom.