Unitarian Universalist fellowship mobilizes to help before Trump administration rolls back rights.
The Rev. Leslie Ahuvah Fails, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fairbanks, Alaska, and Hayden Nevill, a member of the congregation and president of the Pacific Northwest District of the UUA. (Courtesy Hayden Nevill)
The morning after Election Day, Americans woke up with hundreds of millions of different thoughts in their heads.
Hayden Nevill woke up and said to himself, “People have to get IDs.”
Nevill is a member and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fairbanks, Alaska, and the current president of the Pacific Northwest District of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
And he is a transgender man.
An official identification document is not always easy for a transgender person to come by. Some states make it harder than others to change one’s gender marker on driver’s licenses. In several cases, states require proof of gender reassignment surgery.
When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, the U.S. State Department initiated a policy that required only a letter from a doctor declaring that a “gender change is appropriate” for a passport applicant to alter his or her gender marker. The implication is that a passport could be a transgender person’s valid ID, and some states accept a passport as the only document necessary to make the change on a driver’s license.
Nevill’s worry on November 9 was that a Trump State Department would eliminate that policy—especially because Vice President-elect Mike Pence became famous for his transgender “bathroom battle” while governor of Indiana.
Nevill shared his concern with the Rev. Leslie Ahuvah Fails, who opened the Fairbanks fellowship’s sanctuary for a daylong vigil the morning after the election.
“We decided the church would take this on,” Fails said. “Now more than ever, the work has to get done.”
Members of the church’s Gender Pioneers, its support group for transgender people in the Alaskan interior, went to work and prepared an information kit that other UU congregations can use to help people get the gender markers changed on their passports, driver’s licenses, and other documents before the Trump administration takes over.
A special collection during the Sunday service November 13 raised $1,100. Within a week the figure had grown to $2,600, with $1,500 donated online, and is still growing. The fund is being used to help transgender people who live in remote villages and towns throughout Alaska fly to Fairbanks to visit a doctor for a letter and apply for their documents. The first person the congregation helped with travel expenses arrived a week later from Point Barrow, above the Arctic Circle.
The fund is also helping defray the cost of application fees.
On the evening of November 17, ten fellowship members and allies came to the fellowship for a paperwork session to help transgender people prepare the documents necessary to apply for new passports, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and, in some cases, name changes. They plan several more sessions in coming weeks to meet the Inauguration Day deadline.
The Fairbanks fellowship, with a membership of about 100, comes by its interest in helping transgender people with their ID issues honestly. Gender Pioneers started nearly five years ago as a handful of people getting together for coffee. It is now a support group that draws at least a dozen participants from all over the community twice a month.
One session each month involves peer-to-peer counseling.
“The first time I went, it was so energizing,” said a group member who identified herself only as Liz. “Having other people share their experiences has meant a lot to me.”
Liz joined the group a year and a half ago, helped with the first paperwork session, and occasionally joins Sunday worship services.
The second Gender Pioneers session each month is devoted to brainstorming how to turn that support for transgender people into social activism.
Fails said news of Gender Pioneers spread quickly and now there are instances of people moving from more isolated Alaskan communities to Fairbanks simply to be part of the group.
Few people even notice the gender marker on their ID cards, but Nevill said it is a serious issue for transgender people when they do something as routine as rent a movie or check into a hotel and somebody asks to see their driver’s license.
“If the person already [thinks] we look odd or different, they do look at the gender marker,” he said. “It puts a person at risk of at least social awkwardness, and some people will even think it’s a fraudulent document.”
Having appropriate identification will become even more important soon as exemptions on the federal REAL ID law begin to expire. In 2005, Congress passed a law defining certain requirements of state driver’s licenses before they could be used for security clearance at airports, among other things. Alaska is one of twenty-six states that have not complied with the law yet, and its exemption expires in June. At that point, a passport probably will be required to take an airplane trip.
Nevill said his and other UU congregations feel the pressure to get as many passport applications for transgender people submitted as possible before the Trump administration begins.
“Our UU faith informs us that all people deserve respect,” he said. “Our faith calls us to stand up.”
Fails said this, and her fellowship’s other initiatives to support the transgender community of interior Alaska, “is the most important thing we’ve ever done.”
An abridged version of this article appears in the Spring 2017 issue (page 12).
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Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who is also a member of the UU Church of Studio City, California.
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