Voting While Trans: “Lady, Sir, Whatever—Just Please Sit Over There And Wait”

Voter ID laws, misunderstanding and plain old bigotry make voting an uncertain prospect for thousands of transgender Americans.

I’m told this won’t happen again—not to me, anyway. But I share this story because it will surely happen to someone else on Election Day, probably many people.

Transgender voters are routinely disenfranchised by voter ID laws and complicated requirements for changing one’s legal name and gender.

A middle-aged Caucasian man wearing a white button down shirt, a red white and blue tie and black slacks, holding a sign that reads

A 2012 study by the Williams Institute found more than 40% of trans people did not have an updated driver’s license, and 27% had no ID to indicate their authentic gender.

Even with those documents, I ran into trouble voting in the presidential primary this spring.

It was a rainy April morning in Connecticut—I slipped into my all-weather black boots and raincoat for the walk to our local middle school, passing manicured lawns sporting signs for Hillary and Bernie (and the odd Trump banner).

Once there, I waited my turn and gave the elderly volunteer in the plaid shirt and Coke-bottle glasses my name and address.

Honestly, I didn’t expect any problems. The name and gender on my driver’s license match my identity, and I had recently filed the papers to change my voter registration from Independent so I could vote in this crucial primary.

For the first time in my life, I was prepared to vote as a Democrat. Or so I thought.

“You’re not here,” said the man behind the desk, not looking at me but staring at a list of names on a printout. Even reading it upside down, I could tell it didn’t include my name.

“Well, of course, I’m here,” I said, hoping to lighten the mood. Bad idea.

Citizenship question on an application.

In response, he raised his voice—as if my problem wasn’t my registration but my hearing.

“What matters, sir, is your name isn’t on my list. And if you’re not on my list you cannot vote. Let me see your ID.”

He held out his hand but still avoided making eye contact.

“Sir?” I thought. Having decided I wouldn’t let him rattle me, I ignored his misgendering and handed him my driver’s license.

He looked at the card, then his printout, then my card again, and then he handed it back to me. His eyes finally meeting mine.

“I don’t know what to tell you, sir.”

Um.

“I’m sorry, what?” I stammered.

Now, he was wearing glasses and was at least in his mid-70s, but he’d twice called me, “sir,” despite seeing the name “Dawn Stacey Ennis” and the gender marker “F” on my ID. He also observed my makeup, long hair and what I consider generous bust.

“I am not a ‘sir,’ I said as calmly as I could muster. “Is there someone else here who can help me, please?”

Perhaps my voice had been my undoing. More often than not, I adjust how I sound when encountering strangers, but what I feel is a voice that suits me still sometimes gets me misgendered. It probably happens less than a third of the time—usually I get “ma’am” or “miss.”

But not this time.

“Yeah, sure, sorry, lady, sir, whatever. Just please sit over there and wait. Someone will help you in a moment.”

In seconds, some kind of board of elections supervisor rushed to my side, apparently having heard that last exchange, and apologized. She could not have been nicer and gave me a consoling glance that spoke volumes.

It took 30 minutes and four phone calls before my new friend could convince someone at the Registrar of Voters that the male Connecticut resident who voted as an Independent to reelect President Obama in 2012 was the woman who changed her name the following year and recently registered as a Democrat so she could vote in this primary.

But she did—and I did.

Apologies were extended, and all but one of the poll volunteers thanked me for my patience and calm. But not that one gentleman, who kept his head buried in his printout the whole time. Before leaving, I leaned in to make eye contact, and said “Thank you, sir!” Then I accepted my “I Voted” sticker and headed back out into the rain.

dawn ennis
Dawn Ennis

While gender discrepancies on ID are not a valid reason to deny someone a legal ballot, the reality is you may still face delays or denial of the right to vote because of an ID that’s not accepted or bias or misunderstanding.

VoterID

That’s especially true in states that have passed strict photo ID laws—Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

The National Center for Transgender Equality has issued guidelines for voting while trans, both for voters and poll workers.

voting while trans

Know what the laws are in your state, and if you feel you are being wrongly turned away, contact the National Election Protection Hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.

Writer, producer and public speaker Dawn Ennis was the first out trans journalist in TV network news. A widow raising three children, she's the subject of the documentary "Before Dawn/After Don." You can find her on YouTube, Twitter and LifeAfterDawn.com.