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Lawsuit challenges Arkansas ban on gender-neutral IDs

LA Johnson

Ariana Remmel started using they/them pronouns in their late twenties. Born and raised in Little Rock, they grew up not knowing the meaning of the term “non-binary.”

“I can look back at some of the challenges I had as a kid where I felt like I was consistently bumping up against gender stereotypes; in how I was expected to behave in social situations, in academic performance," they said. "It really caused a lot of problems for me that contributed to mental health challenges.”

When they moved to the West Coast, Remmel decided to change their license to reflect their gender identity. Under “sex” on their California driver's license, Remmel put an “X.”

But when they moved back to Arkansas in 2020, they assumed they would have to get rid of the “X” on their ID. Remmel felt sad when they went to the DMV to get an Arkansas license.

“I brought all my previous identification documents, and it was actually the person at the DMV desk who looked at my California license and said ‘I see that you have an “X” here, would you like to have an “X” on your Arkansas drivers license as well?'”

Remmel said just having that option made them feel more welcome.

“After all of the challenges that I had growing up here, it was like 'oh my gosh, maybe this is going to be okay.'”

But, in March, the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration made a sudden rule change. After 14 years of allowing people to put “X” on their driver's license, now they couldn't. They had to put “M” for male, or “F” for female, and back it up with their birth certificate. The rule change means Arkansans also wouldn't be able to change the gender marker on their state-issued ID, unless they undergo gender-affirming surgery.

But, the DFA can't make a rule change that quickly unless it's an emergency. State law says it has to address “imminent peril to the public health, safety, or welfare or compliance with a federal law.”

DFA Secretary Jim Hudson initially requested the rule change, calling it “necessary.” He was questioned about the change by Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, at a hearing.

“How many people have been hurt by the ‘X’ on their driver's license,” Chesterfield asked.

“Well that's not the standard for emergency,” Hudson said. “I don’t have a number for you in terms of the number of people who may have been hurt. We don’t keep that data at DFA.”

Hudson said this was more to protect against “potential” harm.

“The concern about emergencies is, we have a driver's license that is relied upon by law enforcement individuals in order to know who they are interacting with that is inaccurate,” he said. “So there is a potential for a safety issue involving a law enforcement officer. And also to that individual who may be taken into custody to understand who they are dealing with."

Only a few hundred people in Arkansas had opted for the gender-neutral driver’s license. A spokesman from DFA said 342 licenses and 174 state IDs have the “X.” United States passports also allow for the gender-neutral “X” as a gender marker.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit over the rule change last month. Part of the lawsuit is a technical challenge; DFA can only change rules in emergency situations where peril is imminent. John Williams, legal director of the ACLU of Arkansas, says the reasons for the rule change just don’t cut it.

“I don't think that the state really identified any sort of imminent peril to the state,” he said.

The suit has five plaintiffs; some are non-binary or intersex. They say putting M or F on their license instead of “X” is dishonest. Others are transgender and find it harmful to not be able to put their accurate gender on their ID. The suit the ACLU filed says the rule change is causing them psychological harm.

Williams explained how one of his plaintiffs, a transgender woman, could be endangered by not being able to put an “F” on their license.

“I think there is a risk of harassment and harm when someone presents a document that doesn't match how they present in real life.”

Ariana Remmel is not one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and their “X” ID will be good until it expires in a few years. But if the lawsuit isn't successful, they won't be able to keep using the “X” by their name.

“A driver's license is a really important government document to have for employment verification, for tax purposes,” they said. “What this decision feels like, to me, is a direct attack to say that we’re not part of the community, we're not a part of the community that this group of legislators wants to keep safe.”

In a statement, Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin said his office is reviewing the lawsuit, and "we look forward to defending the Department of Finance and Administration in court.”

Copyright 2024 KUAR

Josie Lenora is a news anchor and reporter for KUAR News. She has listened to KUAR and NPR since she was a young child growing up in Little Rock and says she is thrilled to give back to an organization she loves. Josie was previously an intern in the fall of 2021 assisting in production, then spent another semester with the station interning in the newsroom in the spring of 2022.