PennDOT revises its controversial gender policy.
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.