Transgender: Identity vs. Identification

The line stretches around the corner of the office, and moves predictably slowly; like most government bureaus, efficiency is the least of their concerns. However, I wait patiently in line, trying to contain my excitement.

I glance around at the other people in the Ministry of Transportation office, trying to guess why they’re here. The lady behind me with her obnoxious two-year-old seems like she’s just updating her sticker, and can’t get out of there soon enough. The elderly gentleman in front of me is quietly reciting the letters on the eye chart, in hopes that he can prove his eyesight is clear enough to retain his license. And then there’s the impatient yuppie at the back of the line, complaining about having to smog-test his Porsche.

I smile, because my business is of an entirely different nature. I’m not here for a license renewal, sticker, or smog test – these concerns seem downright trivial by comparison. This is a major rite of passage for me, an experience that every transsexual yearns for; I am preparing to receive my first official, government-issued, female ID.

I’ve read the web page hundreds of times, so I know exactly what to bring with me. I have a letter to the MTO, indicating my request for a permanent change to my gender designation. I have a letter from my doctor, who verifies that the change is appropriate. I have my legal name change form, my vehicle ownership, and my old driver’s license. Finally, I have a printout of the MTO web page, explaining the MTO’s policy on Gender Designation Change -- Found herein: LINK

Finally, I reach the front of the line, and approach the girl at the counter. She’s obviously a temp, on summer vacation from high school; she’s disinterested and eagerly awaiting her lunch break. She looks up at me, bored look on her face, and asks me in that bureaucratic monotone where all the words seem to run together, “hi-how-can-I-help-you.

Excited, yet relaxed, I hand the pile of papers to the girl, with the MTO page on top. I smile, and say, “I’d like to get this change processed, please.” I watch, slightly amused, as she reads the Gender Designation Change web page, blinks twice, and looks up at me, face filled with surprise. She looks back at the page, back up at me, back at the page, and calls her supervisor over to the desk.

The supervisor walks over, with the same bored look on her face. She reads over the top page, and gives me a double-take of her own; then, she flips through the rest of the paperwork, trying to balance her surprise and confusion with her desire to maintain a professional demeanour. When they finally see the picture on my now-ancient license, both their jaws drop to the floor, and the temp nearly falls out of her chair.

Moments like these used to feel awkward and uncomfortable; I’ve never met any transsexual who enjoys “outing” themselves, particularly in a government office or public place. However, I’ve found that, no matter how awkward it feels for me, it’s usually much harder for the person I’m dealing with. Most people are good-natured and decent, generally tolerant and accepting, but when they’re caught by surprise, they don’t know how to react. They get flustered easily, and they’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. But a little bit of understanding – in both directions – goes a long way.

So, I lean in towards the counter, and say softly, “look, I’m sure this isn’t the type of request you process every day, so take your time, make sure everything’s there, and we’ll get through this, ok?” I smile warmly, and both the supervisor and temp relax. The supervisor takes one more look through my documents, and says, “Ok, everything looks good, so let’s get this taken care of.” She smiles, meeting my eyes for the first time, and walks away.

After that, the temp flies through the paperwork with a big smile, and a twinkle in her eye. She takes a new picture, gets me to sign the forms authorizing the name and gender change, and prints out a new vehicle ownership form. Finally, she prints out a new Temporary Driver’s License – slightly different name, slightly different Driver’s License number, and very different sex designation – an “F” where there was once an “M.” She tells me that I should expect the picture card within 3-6 weeks, and wishes me a wonderful afternoon.

I thank her for her patience and understanding, and wish her a nice day as well. I gather my papers, smile at her once more, and leave the MTO. My heels click loudly on the linoleum, but I feel as if I’m walking on air. It’s hard to contain the elation I feel, but I find myself making one last, frivolous wish as I walk through the door. . .

Oh, how I wish I could be a fly on the wall of the lunchroom when she goes on break!

It’s funny how our society regulates gender so rigidly. Some pieces, like a Driver’s License or passport, make it very difficult to change. Other pieces, like a SIN card or the old red-and-white Health Card, don’t even bother to display gender at all. When someone asks for ID, most people barely even glance at “sex” because they’re focused on the name, date of birth, and picture. But when your legally-assigned sex doesn’t match your presentation, every request for ID holds the potential for embarrassment or humiliation, and feels like a gross invasion of privacy.

So why do we even ask for sex in the first place? Is it because we’re so used to putting ourselves (and others) into easily-understood boxes, and we never stop to think why these boxes exist? Is this to limit what men and women are allowed to do, and where they’re allowed to go? Does gender exist to dictate exactly what men and women are allowed to do with each other? Or is it simply a way of perpetuating the myth that there are only two biological sexes?

I don’t really have the answer to this question, but one thing is certain – most people are completely clueless as to what gender really means. It’s not simply about being “male” or “female,” nor is it a question of “masculine” or “feminine.” We’re all simply trying to perform our best imitation of what a “man” or “woman” is expected to be. However, the great tragedy is that nobody knows exactly what these terms really mean.

As Kate Bornstein says:


I know that I'm not a man - about that much I'm very clear, and I've come to the conclusion that I'm probably not a woman, either, at least not according to a lot of people's rules on this sort of thing. The trouble is, we're living in a world that insists we be one or the other - a world that doesn't bother to tell us exactly what one or the other actually is.

There’s no such thing as a typical man, or a typical woman – these terms change over time, and differ between cultures. There’s no perfect definition, no exact formula to “make” someone a man or woman – we’re just taking our best guess, and trying to copy the imperfect examples we see all around us.

What differentiates women from men in our society? Size? Shape? Other physical factors? Men, on average, are slightly larger than women, but there are plenty of small men and large women – there’s more variation amongst each group than there are differences between them. Long hair? Breasts? Clothes? Plenty of men grow their hair, and many develop breasts (called gynecomastia) during puberty due to hormonal overload. And fashion changes like the weather; look at clothing styles from the Renaissance, and try to picture someone dressing like that today.

Genitalia? What about the 1-4% of the population estimated to be intersex, with some combination of male and female genitalia? And what about someone who’s genitalia is altered by other factors? Does a man, who has an accident that destroys his penis, stop being a man? Does a woman, forced to have an emergency hysterectomy, stop being a woman? Obviously not, but these scenarios prove that genitals alone cannot determine one’s gender.

What about chromosomes? This might seem like the best way to tell the sexes apart, but any doctor will tell you that we’re much more diverse than simply XX or XY. There are countless variations, including XXY, XYY, XO, XXX, XXYY, and a whole range of others. One’s karyotype (genetic makeup) doesn’t always determine their gender either.

So, without anything that defines, beyond a shadow of a doubt, exactly what a “man” or “woman” actually means, how can we determine which box we have to fit ourselves into? Or what if neither box fits?

At the end of the day, you alone can make this decision. When you were born, your doctor took a quick peek, and announced, “It’s a ______!” And from that day forth, your whole life has been dictated by those expectations. If they fit for you, and feel comfortable, then the doctor probably guessed right. But if not, then it’s up to you to decide who you are – and how you decide to identify yourself.

About the writer:

Nikki S. is a transsexual scholar and writer, attending U of T for Sexual Diversity Studies and working towards her Master’s in Counselling Psychology. Her goal is to become a psychologist specializing in assisting with gender transition, and plans to continue volunteering in GLBT and Trans organizations.

She appears regularly as a Diamond Girl Dancer at Goodhandy’s in Toronto and The Lounge in Mississauga (see for details and schedule) and can be reached via e-mail at

Nikki has published several other articles for this paper, which can be found here. LINK


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