Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released a draft version of the 2018-2019 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that proposes a few small but critical changes to the form. Included in these changes is the question about gender: Instead of asking applicants if they are male or female, as it has before, the draft proposes asking if they were born male or female. And while it may seem inconsequential, this subtle change in phrasing could have strong implications for some students — particularly for transgender students.
The FAFSA currently does not account for transgender applicants, or those whose gender does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth. In years past, the FAFSA has asked which gender applicants are and then provided instructions, buried in small print pages later, to choose the gender they were assigned at birth. The form uses ‘sex’and ‘gender’ synonymously. By posing the question this way, it has entirely left out students whose experiences with gender are not black and white.
The new phrasing would still — but more obviously — require applicants to provide the sex they were assigned at birth, but would not require them to also name the one with which they identify now. The change is meant to make directions clearer, the direct result of a comment on an earlier version of the draft. But even without also asking students’ current gender — which outs applicants as trans — the question may still present some of the same challenges.
Advocates at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) say the new phrasing still has the potential to cause privacy concerns for students whose identity may not be public. For many trans students, the fear of being outed at school or at work represents real safety and civil rights concerns. Even more pertinently, loans can be held up if there is confusion about a student’s gender, says Harper Jean Tobin of NCTE. Roadblocks as simple as not knowing how to fill out the form can keep some students from doing so, and the proposed change may not clear things up.
Asking people who operate in the world as one gender to verify that they were born another presents the same concerns no matter the phrasing and unfortunately, there’s no clearcut answer. But ultimately, this question has the possibility of affecting a comparatively small percentage of applicants. For many students applying, the gender question will likely not require a second thought.
So then why does it matter? Why ask the question at all?
For males between 18 and 25, those applying to receive federal funding must be enrolled in the Selective Service. The Department of Education verifies with a data match that male applicants have registered with the Selective Service, which itself obtains information from the Social Security Administration (SSA). The Selective Service System operates on a similar idea, at least on paper, about gender as the FAFSA. People who were assigned female at birth but now identify as male are not required to enroll, because they are not legally considered male. However, people who were assigned male at birth must enroll, regardless of their actual or current gender.
To further complicate the issue, people may legally change their gender with the SSA and according to Tobin, the hard-and-fast born gender rule does not always apply in practice. If a student is born male and legally changes their gender before they are 18 years of age, their Social Security records would indicate that they are female. In this case, they may not be required to enroll in the Selective Service and therefore would not be subject to the complex set of challenges trans people face when applying for federal funding.
And if the gender transition process were easy for everyone, this might be a solution to the problem.
But, of course, it’s far from easy. Legally or physically transitioning from one gender to another depends on a complicated set of variables including a person’s desire to transition, their financial and logistical ability to do so, and the acceptance and support of those around them. The requirements to change one’s gender on a birth certificate vary by state, but most states require a sworn affidavit from the physician who performed sex reassignment surgery. This surgery, which physically changes someone from one biological sex to another, is itself a large and expensive undertaking — and not something every trans person has a desire to do. For those who cannot or do not want to physically transition, it can be nearly impossible to get a birth certificate altered.
Furthermore, to transition before the age of 18 — so as to be accurately represented in SSA data that determine whether or not Selective Service enrollment is mandated — would require resources that many young trans students do not have, not the least of which the financial ability to do so. Gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy cost hundred of thousands of dollars, and the process requires sufficient health insurance and access to a doctor willing to perform the surgery. For low-income trans students, or those in rural or conservative states, transitioning is often completely out of reach.
These social and physical challenges are directly connected to barriers in obtaining financial aid: Transgender students who are most in need of financial aid may be the same group who can least afford to physically transition, and therefore more likely than their higher-income peers to face challenges when filling out the FAFSA. It’s nearly impossible to phrase demographic gender questions without either adhering to a strict and inaccurate gender binary, or offering so many options that the data become meaningless. To effectively erase the challenges this question presents to trans students applying for federal aid, Congress should eliminate the requirement that the Department of Education track Selective Service enrollment. There is no practical connection between the two and without the question, trans students wouldn’t be forced to inaccurately define themselves on paper.
Without the question, there would be one less barrier in the way for already-marginalized students accessing higher education.