Florida banning changes of gender on driver’s licenses sparks confusion, backlash
For Jude Speegle, a 29-year-old Daytona Beach transgender activist with two children, changing the gender designation on his driver’s license in April 2023 represented a milestone in his transition. He described the six-month process of changing the name and gender on his legal documentation as mostly seamless.
“I had zero issues,” Speegle said.
No longer. Florida has announced that it will become what is believed to be the first state not to allow drivers to change the gender markers on their driver’s licenses, under any circumstances. The decision came from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, run by Dave Kerner, a political appointee of Gov. Ron DeSantis. It was announced in a memo last week asserting that a person’s gender “is determined by innate and immutable biological and genetic characteristics.”
“Permitting an individual to alter his or her license to reflect an internal sense of gender role or identity, which is neither immutable or objectively verifiable, undermines the purpose of an identification record and can frustrate the state’s ability to enforce its laws,” read the agency memo.
Civil rights and advocacy organizations said they are considering how to contest the new rules.
Sasha Buchert, senior counsel and director of New York-based Lambda Legal’s Non-Binary and Transgender Rights Project, said Florida is the first state she has heard of prohibiting people from updating the gender markers on driver's licenses to match their gender identity.
“This just creates this really harmful situation where people are going to have to walk through the world without an ID that matches who they are,” said Buchert, who is transgender.
While Lambda Legal is still assessing the situation, Buchert said the organization is reviewing its options for challenging the policy change.
The announcement came five days after DeSantis suspended his campaign for president. It was consistent with other measures enacted in recent years by his administration and the Republican-led Legislature, including banning what activists describe as gender-affirming medical care for minors, prohibiting Medicaid from covering such procedures for youths or adults and criminalizing transgender people for using the bathroom that matches their gender identity.
The latest move confused some drivers, like Speegle, who wondered whether their licenses would be revoked or suspended because they had already switched gender designations.
“I followed the rules that they had in place,” Speegle said. “Does that mean I'm now breaking the law? I could be driving with my children and get pulled over for some reason. And then what, is my license suspended?”
“In Florida, tens of thousands of people have legally updated their gender marker on their driver’s license or ID,” Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a state LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, said in a statement. “They carefully followed the rules to ensure their identification accurately reflects who they are, and they trusted this process. Now, an abrupt policy reversal has thrown their lives into chaos.”
A spokeswoman for the motor vehicle agency, Molly Best, said the new policy applies only to replacement license requests going forward. For new licenses, the memo said, misrepresenting a driver’s gender could be prosecuted as criminal fraud and result in the license being revoked.
In the memo sent to county tax collectors Jan. 26, Robert Kynoch, deputy executive director of the department, wrote that the department would rescind a “gender requirements” provision from the Driver’s License Operations Manual that allowed Floridians to change the gender marker on their driver’s licenses.
Democrats have proposed bills in Tallahassee since at least 2021 to allow for a non-binary gender option on Florida driver’s licenses. Republican leaders in the Capitol have blocked the bills every time, not even allowing committee hearings or legislative votes.
“This is an example of Gov. DeSantis politicizing every state agency for his own political agenda,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said. “Even though he's not running for president anymore, it's pretty clear that his extremism is not going anywhere.”
Floridians could previously change the gender on their driver’s license if they submitted a signed statement from a physician confirming that they are undergoing clinical treatment for gender transition, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, a Washington-based civil rights group.
The center is one of the groups that tracks laws across states limiting transgender drivers from changing their gender designations on driver’s licenses. It said at least 20 states and the District of Columbia allow drivers to change their genders without any documentation and allow the option of a gender-neutral designation.
The State Department under the Biden administration began allowing transgender travelers in 2021 to change the gender designation on their U.S. passports without any documentation.
Kerner, appointed by DeSantis last year as the department’s executive director, instructed officials to confirm policies and procedures aligned with “statutory law and the department’s inherent authority,” said Best, the department spokesperson.
“In Florida, you do not get to play identity politics with your driver's license,” Best said.
As with the change affecting driver’s licenses, a bill in the Florida House filed by Rep. Douglas Michael Bankson, R-Apopka, and Rep. Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, would require Floridians to include their sex at birth, not gender, on state-issued IDs. There is no Senate version of the bill yet.
Speegle testified in opposition to the bill last month during a legislative hearing in Tallahassee.
“Their tactics are working,” Speegle said. “Plenty of us are afraid, but there are plenty of people who are willing to stand up.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to support our students here.