Kansas must stop changing trans people's gender on driver's licenses

Transgender people have been able to change their driver's licenses in Kansas for at least four years.
A sample driver's license issued by the Kansas Division of Vehicles
Posted at 2:32 PM, Jul 10, 2023

Kansas must stop allowing transgender people to change the sex listed on their driver's licenses, a state-court judge ordered Monday as part of a lawsuit filed by the state's Republican attorney general.

District Judge Teresa Watson's order will remain in effect for up to two weeks, although she can extend it. But it's significant because transgender people have been able to change their driver's licenses in Kansas for at least four years, and almost 400 people have done it. For now, Kansas will be among only a few states that don't allow any such changes.

The judge issued the order three days after Attorney General Kris Kobach sued two officials in Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's administration. Kelly announced last month that the state's motor vehicles division would continue changing driver's licenses for transgender people so that their sex listing matches their gender identities.

Kobach contends that a law, which took effect on July 1, prevents such changes and requires the state to reverse any previous changes in its records. It defines "male" and "female" so that Kansas law does not recognize the gender identities of transgender, non-binary or gender non-conforming people.

Watson wrote in her brief order that for the motor vehicles division to keep making changes for transgender people would case "immediate and irreparable injury." Driver's licenses remain valid for six years, and Watson noted Kobach's argument that licenses "are difficult to take back or out of circulation once issued."

"Licenses are used by law enforcement to identify criminal suspects, crime victims, wanted persons, missing persons and others," Watson wrote. "Compliance with state legal requirements for identifying license holders is a public safety concern."

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Kelly's office said it was working on a response to Watson's order. Kelly won her first term as governor in 2018 by defeating Kobach, who was then the Kansas secretary of state. He in turn staged a political comeback last year by winning the attorney general's race as she captured a second term — both of them by slim margins.

The governor's office has said attorneys at the division of vehicles' parent agency, the Kansas Department of Revenue, do not believe allowing transgender people to change their driver's licenses violates the new law.

Four times as many people a month have changed their driver's licenses this year than in previous years. Such changes accelerated in May and June as LGBTQ+ rights advocates encouraged people to do it ahead of the new law.

Taryn Jones, vice chair and lobbyist for the LGBTQ+ rights group Equality Kansas, acknowledged the concern that allowing the state to keep making changes would make it more difficult for law enforcement, but asked, "How many criminals are you having that are trans?" She said trans people will still be able to change their names to align with their gender identities.

Jones also said potential problems for law enforcement should be weighed against the harm to the mental health and safety of transgender people who don't have licenses that match their gender identities.

"You know, it's hard enough being trans right now in America, especially in a conservative place like Kansas," she said.

Malachite Hughes, a 17-year-old transgender boy in Topeka, said knowing that some people view him as female can lead to him suffering from depression. He plans to change his driver's license and birth certificate when he turns 18.

"For me, it's all about having my stuff reflect who I am personally," he said after speaking at a recent transgender rights rally at the Kansas Statehouse. "Knowing that my legal documents say that I am female is very uncomfortable."

Even with a raft of measures targeting transgender people in statehouses across the U.S. this year, Kansas would be atypical for not allowing them to change sex or gender markers on birth certificates, driver's licenses or either. Montana and Tennessee also have policies against changing either document, and Oklahoma has a policy against changing birth certificates.

Kobach has argued that the new Kansas law also prevents transgender people from changing the listing for their sex on their birth certificates, but the lawsuit he filed Friday doesn't address those documents. The settlement of a 2018 federal lawsuit requires Kansas to allow transgender people to change their birth certificates, and more than 900 people have done it.

The new Kansas law defines a person's sex as male or female, based on the "biological reproductive system" identified at birth, applying that definition to any state law or regulation.

It also says that "important governmental objectives" of protecting people's privacy, health and safety justify single-sex spaces such as bathrooms and locker rooms. However, that part of the law contains no enforcement mechanism.