It was a Saturday morning, and MrsDarwin and I had both set out to get our driver's licenses renewed. It's an easy enough process, so long as one has the time to wait through the snaking line down at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and write the state of Ohio a check. We spent our fifteen minutes in line and then separated, each going do a different desk clerk to fill out our forms, pay our fees and get our pictures taken. I handed over my paperwork to the lady behind the counter with a cheerful, "Good morning," and waited.
For a moment she typed away at her terminal, then suddenly her face became grave. She turned and called over her supervisor. "Have you seen this before?" The supervisor looked at the screen and assumed a similar expression of gravity. "You can't renew that," she said.
No matter how law abiding one is, this kind of thing inspires a moment of guilty panic. What had I done? I wondered. Had I been cited for something via some sort of camera or other remote system, not received the letter, and had my license suspended? Had some terrorist stolen my identity? Was I about to be plunged into some Kafkaesque hell of mistaken identity and absurdly applied but inflexible rules?
"What seems to be the problem?" I asked.
"I can't renew your license," the woman said. "I don't know what sex you are. It should say M or F, but it just says U."
I wasn't wearing a dress at the moment. Indeed, since it was a weekend, I hadn't bothered to shave that morning. I don't claim to be the most ruggedly masculine person in the history of the world, but I'd certainly never encountered any question of this before.
"I'm male," I said.
"Yes, but I can't put that in the system without proof," she replied.
I considered offering to step into a back room and drop my pants. It seemed a little personal, but then, we've reached the point when we need take off our shoes and raise our hands while exposing ourselves to an electronic peeping tom before boarding an airplane. Perhaps it's also necessary to do a quick strip before getting a drivers license these days in order to make sure that everything is in order. Why not. I'm secure in my masculinity, and as a father of small children I'm used to not having any privacy these days.
Nonetheless, a remark which might be construed as sexual harassment didn't seem the best way to get the BMV ladies to help me.
"What kind of documentation do you need?" I asked, trying to maintain a serious demeanor.
"A birth certificate or current US passport," she said. "You are a citizen, right?"
Apparently in this day and age one can be a citizen even if one has no sex. "Yes," I assured her. I wasn't sure if it was worse that an indeterminate creature like me had besmirched the shores of these United States with my uncertain birth, or if it would be a worse offense to have dragged my doubtful sex across one of our borders, but it seemed best to stick to the facts of the matter.
"How did you get a driver's license?" the supervisor asked. "I don't understand how they even issued you a driver's license without a sex."
"I just came into this office four years ago when I moved from Texas," I said, name dropping the Lone Star State in hopes that it would help my case for masculinity. "I provided my Texas license and they issued this one."
"Well, I don't know," she said. "Maybe there was something wrong with the computers. Bring in your birth certificate or passport and we can issue you a license with your sex on it."
I left the counter, making room for a fellow Ohioan who was blessed with a more determinate sexuality. MrsDarwin was getting her picture taken. "All set?" she asked.
"No," I replied. "They said they can't renew my license."
Was this a crisis point? If I wasn't even male, could we actually be married? Sure, if this was some advanced state such as Massachusetts, this might be easy, but here in the midwest could a... whatever I was, actually be married?
"Why not?" asked MrsDarwin, unaware of the dangers that lurked in her innocent question.
"Because they don't know my sex," I said.
"Oh." She considered. "Did you tell them?"
"Yes, but they need documentation. I need to bring in my birth certificate or passport."
MrsDarwin began to laugh.
It was not the first time we had suffered an existential crisis at the BMV. Four years before, when we first came in to get our licenses, MrsDarwin had nearly ceased to exist. It was my fault, of course. The move had been a logistically difficult one, when it came to complying with Ohio law. We moved up from Texas when I started my new job in Columbus. I stayed in an apartment provided via the company's relocation package, while MrsDarwin stayed at her father's house in Cincinnati. When we found a house to move into, I set up all the bills because I was the one local. This seemed helpful and sensible until the day we went to get our Ohio licenses (having already been cited for taking too long to transfer our car registrations and licenses because we were waiting till we had a permanent address.)
"I just need proof that you live at this address," the desk clerk said.
MrsDarwin hesitated. "We just moved in. What do you need?"
"Some official mail with your name and the address on it, like a utility bill."
"All the bills are in my husband's name. I have a copy of our marriage certificate. Can we use that and the bill with his name?"
"No, we need proof that you live at the address."
"But we're married."
"Yes, but we need proof that you live there. Do you have a paystub with your address on it?"
"I stay home with the children full time."
"Oh, I see. Well, we need something."
We'd come laden down with out family documents folder, complete with birth certificates, marriage certificate, car titles, the lot. All of these pieces of official paper, but nothing to prove that MrsDarwin actually lived at the house that we'd just bought. I, the man, had taken all the utility bills, and without realizing it I had made my wife homeless in the process. In the eyes of the state she had no place to lay her head. Perhaps she did not even really exist, a flitting, insubstantial being, deprived of utility bills and paystubs by the patriarchal arrangement of our family.
In the end, the state giveth and that state taketh away. We went out to the car, where we had all the mail which had come thus far. In the midst of moving our family, I had been keeping bills and all other important papers in my backpack that I took to work. The house was still too chaotic to have a bill paying nook. We realized that although nothing addressed to MrsDarwin had arrived yet, her change of address had gone through and due to this a piece of mail from the Social Security Administration had arrived for her with its bright yellow UPDATE ADDRESS WITH SENDER sticker. We took this envelope, this slim tether which connected MrsDarwin to our home, in to the desk clerk, and after sighing and thinking about it for a bit she owned that although this wasn't really the sort of thing they were supposed to do, she was able to accept it. "You really should change at least one of the bills into your name, though," she advised, as she granted MrsDarwin existence in the form of a plastic identity card.
My own problem took slightly longer to resolve. I went home and dug out the aged piece of paper which showed, on a certified piece of paper, that years ago when I was born in Whittier, California I had a sex. I was not Unknown but Male. I took this in to the BMV, waited through the line again, and presented this proof of my sex. She had to call downtown to grant me my legal Y Chromosome. "Hello? Yes, I have a record here where I need to update the sex."
A few moments and I was male again in the eyes of the state. The supervisor came over. "I did some research into this," she said. "Did you get into an accident or get pulled over before you got your Ohio license?"
"I got a parking ticket because they thought I hadn't transferred my registration to Ohio soon enough," I said.
"That must be it," she said. "Apparently there's a glitch in the system where if you get cited in the state before you have a license, you're put in as sex unknown, and in your case that didn't get corrected when they gave you your license."
So there you have it. I had been emasculated by the police, and only when I proved my manhood to the ladies at the BMV could it be restored to me.
Opening the road for other runners
4 hours ago