A Question of Gender, A Matter of Choice

PennDOT revises its controversial gender policy.

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 22 | Posted Sep. 28, 2010

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Photo by Jeff Fusco

Danielle Finnegan has never been more excited to go to the DMV. She even got dolled up for the trip, her fingernails coated in hot pink polish, top button on her light pink blouse undone, barrette clipped tightly to her light brown hair. After nearly 60 years living as someone else, she is eager to tell PennDOT who she really is.

“Finally,” cries Finnegan, the first transgender individual in the state to take advantage of PennDOT’s recent policy change on gender. “No one can argue with the fact that I am a female.”

As of Aug. 25, PennDOT no longer requires sexual reassignment surgery for a gender change to one's license. There are many who identify themselves as transgender yet opt out of sexual reassignment surgery. State LGBT groups helped PennDOT become aware of these issues in order to craft new guidelines. Under the agency’s revised policy, a transgender person still needs to prove that he or she is living full-time as the preferred gender. But that proof can come in the form of verification from a social worker or licensed medical or psychological caregiver.

PennDOT spokesman Craig Yetter says the shift in policy follows a similar change implemented on June 10 by the U.S. Department of State regarding transgender persons’ gender markers on U.S. passports. He adds that PennDOT also considered “policies already existing in 26 other states and the District of Columbia.”

The agency quietly implemented its policy change after more than a year of talks between representatives of EqualityPA, TransCentral PA and PennDOT. Ted Martin, head of EqualityPA, says the change aims to prevent too-often uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous situations for transgender individuals presenting their IDs in daily situations. “This simple and cost-free change in policy will make lives better,” he says, “and that’s really the most important point in all this.”

Finnegan, a male-to-female (MTF) transgender individual, was ecstatic when she got the call about the new policy the morning it went into effect. “I was like a little kid waiting to get … candy,” she says. The 64-year-old immediately printed out the new forms, which were posted at TransCentralPA.com, filled them out, faxed them to her doctor’s office in Carlisle and then called the doctor. “I told her, it’s about a 40-minute ride [to your office]; I’ll see you in 40 minutes.”

As she busied herself with the formalities of legally changing her gender, Finnegan was unaware that she was about to become the first person in Pennsylvania to be affected by PennDOT’s new policy. “I didn’t care so much about being first … I was just happy to finally have [official documentation] in my hand.”

Within hours of receiving her new license, a photograph of Finnegan with her new ID was sent out as part of a TransCentralPA press release, aptly titled “Success!”

“Think of the number of times you have to present a driver’s license just in daily life,” says Lee Carpenter, a professor at Temple Law School and former lawyer for EqualityPA. “It can be while you’re stopped by police, but it could be getting carded in a bar. For most people a driver’s license is the only ID anyone ever has and [they have] to present that picture ID over and over again. This gender marker often caused trouble.”

For Finnegan, the new policy is a long-awaited civil victory. “It was so important to me,” she says of changing her gender status. Especially since almost every doctor she’s ever seen in her life told her she was nuts. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, Danielle, you’re not mentally crazy. There’s nothing wrong with you. Even the state of Pennsylvania recognizes that you’re truly female. And here’s the license to prove it.’” She adds: “After so many years of suffering … to be able to get up in the morning … put my hair in a ponytail … put on slacks or a skirt, whatever … and just be myself. Not thinking ‘I have to act like a boy.’”

Danielle [born Daniel] Finnegan’s life had been defined by repression. Born in 1946 with male genitals, she knew from the age of 5 that she was a girl. “I was just very emotional,” she says. “Very into feminine things like cooking or baking. I wanted sparkly things. My mom would get so frustrated because if a button or string was missing on one of my sweaters, I didn’t want to wear it. If it wasn’t soft, I didn’t want to wear it.”

Finnegan says her mother used to joke about her personality, saying, “Oh Danny, you should have been a girl.” Her response, “I am a girl,” was thoroughly laughed off by her mother. Finnegan’s father was an alpha-male type who she says beat her regularly. His answer to everything was physical. “It was my father’s idea that you had to do tough things and that would toughen you up. But … that’s not the way life really is. When tough things come along, we have to try to survive them, but it doesn’t change the nature of the person who deals with it.”

She remembers gravitating toward other girls at a young age, but being rejected. “I wanted a girlfriend,” she says, “but not like a boy wants a girlfriend. I wanted someone to talk to and someone to share my feelings and thoughts with, but all the girls just saw a boy’s body.” Faced with the pressure of living life as a male, Finnegan ran away from home at 16. “I tried to live my life as a boy, but it’s not who I was.”

On her own, she earned a GED, served in Vietnam and took community college classes upon her return to the States. Later on, she opened and operated her own fluids components company out of Harrisburg. Finnegan remained trapped living as a male throughout adulthood, and it wasn’t until 2006—at the age of 60—that she was able to come clean with those around her about who she really was. It took a therapist’s advice to seek out information on the Internet before she could come out. That’s how she found TransCentralPA, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit group dedicated to providing education, outreach and meetups for “Transgendered individuals, their Significant Others and to other persons who have a personal or professional interest in a Transgendered person or in gender behavior or theory in general.”

Illustration by Jenna Peters-Golden

As a full-fledged member of TransCentralPA, Finnegan travels across the state giving talks on transgenderism and counsels young people dealing with their condition. Having counseled so many transgender individuals through Trans CentralPA, the policy change is personal to Finnegan on several levels. She says that in the United States, an individual can be held 72 hours before being charged with a crime. For transgender people, many of whom have been brought in for confusion relating to their identity, 72 hours is more than enough time for something terrible to happen. “If the transgender individual’s driver’s license says male, you can be thrown into a holding cell with males. Do you know what’s going to happen to you? You’re … fortunate if you survive more than 10 to 15 minutes,” she says.

Records made public by the Police Advisory Commission suggest that Cleveland Joyce Taylor was one such survivor. Under the old rules, Taylor, a MTF transgender person, had to be identified as a man on her license, even though she lived her life as a female. According to the PAC, Taylor, then 42, was pulled over for a traffic violation in North Philly on the night of Jan. 12, 1998. The officer on the scene, Donna Mumford, ran Taylor’s plates and the car came back as stolen. Mumford was soon joined by Officer David Williams.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 22 of 22
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1. Kathy said... on Sep 29, 2010 at 08:36AM

“Thanks for a very well researched and even handed review of an area that too often receives a sensationalistic treatment in the media.

Ms. Gramley is, of course, lying when she states a limited concern on any issue that affects lgbt people. She's opposed every measure that would enfranchise us - the statewide nondiscrimination bills, hate crimes bills - the 2002 revision to the Philly Fair Practices Ordinance that said transgender people should have equal rights with everyone else.

Yet - she doesn't oppose any of these types of legislation when they cover people like her.”

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2. teleprompter said... on Sep 29, 2010 at 08:38AM

“Interesting art - I believe Padilla was a Street LGBT Adv. Board member - not Nutter.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Sep 29, 2010 at 01:48PM

“This article is probably the best researched and written of anything
I have read in a long time. I sound naive, but why is there even a
question of sexuality in any capacity for the public domain? In any case
this was a long time coming and Ms Finnegan as well as others in her
situation deserve to be spoken to and offered respect, this is a good start.

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4. jasmine said... on Sep 29, 2010 at 01:53PM

“I appreciate this article and its information. The art/photo on the cover of the newspaper associated with this article works against your otherwise relatively respectful tone. Is that supposed to be funny, mocking, or sexualizing? Seems like it's all 3. Try again, please.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Sep 30, 2010 at 08:41AM

“well written from someone who transitioned more than 15 years ago and knows problems of being out (why I am not out)”

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6. thiago said... on Sep 30, 2010 at 02:58PM

“I didn't read the article, but from the cover of the issue I learned that transexual people are hairy dudes that go into men's restrooms in high heels to pee in the stalls with their panties all the way down. Nice work, Philadelphia Weekly!”

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7. Anonymous said... on Sep 30, 2010 at 06:14PM

“I havnt read the article yet. I gotta say though, the cover is pretty offensive and doesn't really seem to have anything at all to do with what the article is actually about. dang guys...embarrassing...”

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8. Anonymous said... on Oct 1, 2010 at 03:48PM

“PW - your cover is unbelievably offensive! You can be shocking without being transphobic. I'm disappointed...”

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9. Lphl said... on Oct 1, 2010 at 06:30PM

“The cover is awful! Oh my god! The story on the otherhand is great...and I'm glad that it was written hopefully the distraction of the cover will not take away from the story to other readers.”

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10. Dana in Philly said... on Oct 2, 2010 at 08:09AM

“Super-offensive stereotype-strengthening cover. Why couldn't you have just used Kathy Padilla's sweet face instead?”

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11. Cei Bell said... on Oct 2, 2010 at 12:50PM

“The article is excellent. The cover is hideous and offensive. There often seems to be a disconnect between content and presentation. When I wrote an article about transgender exclusion from the ENDA bill the Daily News used a similarly offensive graphic of a manic muscle man painting his toenails. I don't see how an editor would not know that this is offensive. Or perhaps the staff is incapable of thinking of anything that is not offensive.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Oct 2, 2010 at 04:19PM

“If "she" has a penis between "her" legs, then "she" is a man. Feelings don't change that fact of life. Chopping it off doesn't change that much either, just that you are less of a man.

As for Mr. Taylor...don't want to spend a night in jail with other guys?? Don't do the crime if you can do the time.

The PW cover pretty much fits the facts here.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Oct 3, 2010 at 12:53PM

“photo not so bad .”

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14. Lee said... on Oct 3, 2010 at 01:07PM

“Perhaps we should be thankfull we were not born with such severe
physical dissabilities. Science is moving quickly in this area, but till
new findings are accepted by all, KINDNESS is in order!

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15. Anonymous said... on Oct 4, 2010 at 04:21AM

“Since when is being born with a penis or a vagina a severe physical disability? Perhaps MR. Finnegan should move to San Francisco where he'll fit right in.”

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16. joy said... on Oct 4, 2010 at 01:59PM

“the cover photo is tasteless, offensive, and disrespectful. what message is being sent out with that cover? who is that cover for? moreover what does the cover have to do with the issue address in the article.”

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17. Anonymous said... on Oct 4, 2010 at 05:02PM

“Joy...I assume you're actually a guy...can't you tell what the message is? The cover shows that even if you wear panties and call yourself a woman, you still pee like a man because that is what you are. The only thing offensive here, are the nut-jobs like you who think this crap is normal and should be accepted as such. The last thing I want is someone like this in the woman's locker room with my wife and daughter.”

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18. Augie said... on Oct 5, 2010 at 02:07PM

“Thanks for putting out one of the most sensitive and best-researched articles on trans issues I've seen in a while. I was especially impressed with the effort made to interview several knowledgeable and well-known activists in the Philadelphia area.

However, I regret to say that the only reason I picked up this issue of PW and read the article was because I was so horrified and offended by the cover. I expected to be equally offended by the contents of the article. One anonymous poster summed up the cover perfectly: "The cover shows that even if you wear panties and call yourself a woman, you still pee like a man because that is what you are." If that is the message that PW wishes to send to the general public, then they have done an excellent job.

Next time, please take a moment to consider that not everyone is going to take the time to read the article inside. The message that your cover conveys is the message that Philadelphia is going to hear.”

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19. Angela Gardner said... on Oct 5, 2010 at 08:44PM

“I don't know what you intended to represent with that cover art but the only thing it could possibly be is a regular dude dressed up (badly) for Halloween. No relation to any actual transgender people I know. Way to spread negative stereotypes PW.”

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20. jason said... on Oct 6, 2010 at 02:26AM

“decent article. terrible photo. good job, randy lobasso. shame on you, editors.”

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21. Marcus said... on Oct 6, 2010 at 11:04AM

“As an FTM in Philadelphia who is also a business owner, I was horrified and offended by this cover.

It is dumbfounding how the same editorial staff can print an otherwise balanced article and also believe that a sensationalistic and completely irresponsible cover image was acceptable.

You've lost my advertising dollars permanently because of this poor decision.

It is also unfortunate that you placed the safety of brave transactivists like Kathy Padilla in jeopardy by prominently posting her picture with an article associated with this kind of cover. It is difficult enough for trans people to put our names and faces in the public eye, but to couple it with such an image reflects a complete disregard for her safety or well-being. Shame on you.”

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22. Anonymous said... on Oct 7, 2010 at 01:15PM

“@Marcus....if by advertising dollars you mean that personal ad you place for sexual services, then you no one will miss you.

You guys (and I use the term loosely) really need to start growing some thicker skin.”

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