Samson Seals

Invalidated: A Trans Man in the American South

The DMV is one of my least favorite places.

I’m sure this is a sentiment shared by nearly everyone who’s ever been inside one, and just the mention of the place is enough to incite a chorus of groans in a room of American adults. Long lines, uncomfortable chairs in crowded rooms, and seemingly endless wait times with nothing but clicking pens and a dying phone battery to pass the time– It certainly doesn’t sound like a fun-filled experience, to say the least.

However, there is a special kind of terror that is going to the DMV (or really any government building) as a transgender person. The average citizen’s greatest worry at the DMV is likely not that the validity of their identity—of their entire being—is going to come into question. As a trans man, this is something I tend to dwell on every day.

When I walked through the glass doors of the Lexington Department of Motor Vehicles, my palms were drenched it sweat. I tried to take measured breaths as I filled out my paperwork and shuffled through my various documents; birth certificate, proof of address, my out-of-state driver’s license—with a few unordinary but necessary forms, like my proof of name change and a letter from my therapist assuring my identity—ensuring that I had everything I needed to make this process as smooth as possible. When I was called to my assigned window (remarkably quickly, I might add), I gave the nice woman helping me my winningest smile as I handed over my forms and requested my South Carolina Driver’s License. I let the tension ease from my shoulders as she smiled back and began to process the request, but I watched—in what felt like slow motion—as she began to frown as she stared at my birth certificate.

I’m sure you’ve guessed this by now, but the name and the gender on my birth certificate certainly didn’t match those as listed on all my forms or my ID (in the same way that it didn’t match me at all). I watched, nervously biting at my cheeks as she looked back and forth, and back and forth, and finally to me, as I tried to maintain my smile despite her staring at me as if I had sprouted a second head. She stood, politely excusing herself, citing that she needed to “speak with a manager about something” and that it would just be a moment.

I tried to stay calm as I waited, my heart caught in my throat, as I silently poured over every word in each form in my head to ensure I hadn’t missed anything, hadn’t made some unfixable mistake. I refused to let my anxiety get the best of me as I waited at that desk for what felt like centuries, assuring myself that even if something was amiss, it would simply mean I would have to come back another day. Perhaps I had missed a form, or needed an extra proof of address, but it wouldn’t have to be the end of the world. Now of course, while what happened wasn’t the end of life as I know it, it certainly wasn’t something easily fixable—another drop in the bucket of transphobia, another reason to add to the list of why life legally must be difficult for someone like me.

The woman finally, finally returned to her desk after I bit my cheek hard enough to draw blood. I could taste copper on my tongue as I asked her if there were any issues with my paperwork in an octave higher than I care to admit. She smiled sympathetically, informing me that while my name was all fine and good, if I wanted my “preferred” gender reflected on my license, I would need a court order signed by a judge.

I felt my veins run cold. I had gotten a court order before, of course, for the sake of changing my name, but despite the cost (nearly $200, which I didn’t have) and the wait time (sometimes only a few months, if you’re lucky) it wasn’t impossible to do in Washington, where there are certain protections in place for transgender people. South Carolina, predictably, was a very different story. The woman kindly explained to me that in order for them to change my gender marker, I would need to have a letter signed by a surgeon confirming that I had a total sex reassignment surgery, and then go to court—and even then, a judge could still deny me my request. Until then, my main form of identification was going to reflect my assigned gender at birth.

The sounds of the DMV seemed to fade out around me as I stared at my feet, trying desperately to hold back tears. The reality of the situation was settling like a heavy weight on my shoulders; for as long as I lived in this state, every bar, every job, every doctor’s office, every school, every place I had hoped to go in my everyday life would immediately know a very intimate fact about me. With one small letter on a piece of plastic, the state of South Carolina had shattered my idea of living a relatively peaceful existence without anyone ever needing to know that I was different.

I felt large, hot tears rolling down my cheeks. I felt like a fraud—a poor caricature of the man I know myself to be. In a moment’s notice, my self-confidence had shriveled down to almost nothing. I knew that no matter what I did, I would never be acknowledged as a “real man”, at least not by the state. I had been sent back to an 8-year-old version of myself, scolded for stealing my brother’s clothes from his dresser and trying to bury my skirts in my toy box. I wanted to scream, to run outside of the building, wanted to drive to the airport and hop on the first flight back to Washington state.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said, but sometimes I wonder what she was sorry for. Was she sorry for the young man in front of her because he was crying? Because she was the one to deliver the news? Or was she sorry for the system, sorry on behalf of the state that refused to acknowledge or respect someone who had done so much fighting just to be seen? “Thank you,” I said, my voice cracking. It suddenly sounded far too feminine in my ears.

I wiped my eyes as best as I could before they took my picture, but looking at my license, I can see the red rim around my eyes, and my smile looks fake.

I try not to let the “F” on my license bother me. It’s easy not to think about most days, easy to ignore; until I notice my hands shake slightly when I hand it to the cashier at the pharmacy, or when I grip the wheel tighter when a cop passes me on the freeway, never knowing who could be the one to finally lash out, to say something about that odd little “F.”

Someone who’s never experienced something like this may think that it’s trivial. Silly that my “sensitive snowflake soul” could be so bothered by a letter on a piece of plastic. I would implore those people to think about what that little letter means; what would it feel like to have one’s identity brought into question constantly?

I live in fear every day, live in fear of what a room of old southern men is going to decide next about the validity of my existence. This is not a one-of-a-kind experience; trans people are afraidof things every day that other people couldn’t even fathom being afraid of. A cisgender person may dislike using a public restroom, but I would hope that they aren’t expecting to be assaulted in one—and if they are, be afraid of getting help or of calling the police. Unfortunately, this is the reality that trans people across the southern US live in. Feeling safe in public, or at all, is a constitutional right that every single American citizen is entitled to; a right that is being taken away by lawmakers every day.

Alphonso David, the president of the human rights campaign, says that “transgender and nonbinary people are not simply living in a state of emergency; we are living in many states of imminent danger.” This is more than being discriminated against; this is danger of having our rights taken away, losing our medical care, our children, even our lives.

The American southeast is a difficult place to be a transgender person. States like North and South Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and more have been pushing and passing anti-trans legislation full force in the last year. In May, Tennessee passed a law preventing transgender people from using restrooms that align with their identity (David) and other southern states have been quickly attempting to follow suit; and these “bathroom bills” are the least of transgender people’s worries. This has a greater effect than just a marker on a driver’s license or a sign on a public restroom: “While legislators advance these bills to score political points, the consequences for the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and particularly transgender people, are destabilizing and dangerous: These bills are helping to fuel a wave of anti-trans violence” (David).

Many people are influenced by their local lawmaker’s political agendas; I would ask you to instead think about your family, your neighbors, your friends, and your classmates. What would you do if their life were in jeopardy because of who they are—because of something they can’t change about themselves? Is the color of their eyes or their zodiac sign indicative of their worth as a human being—or furthermore—something they deserve to die for? Regardless of your political party, I doubt this sounds acceptable to you. However, “Despite a majority of voters in the United States opposing these types of laws—including a majority of Republican voters—extremist legislators continue advancing measures at a breakneck pace” (David) and it’s up to us to stop it. The transgender community needs your support, and your intervention. It’s time for Americans to become Allies, and fight for what we believe in, fight for what this country stands for: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for every citizen—not just the ones whose identities match their birth certificate.

Works Cited

David, Alphonso. “Why the Latest Republican Assault on L.G.B.T.Q. Rights Is Different.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 June 2021,