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The Registry of What?

After a week of disappointing speeches at the United Nations, each – Obama, Abbas, Netanyahu – distinctly graceless, plus a debate of nine would-be Republican presidential nominees, including Doc Gingrich, Grumpy Ron Paul, Dopey Michelle Bachmann, Sneezy Santorum and Happy Herman Cain and five more dwarfs (but no Bashful), to say nothing of the slide in the market, it seems to me time for a bit of a break. I did not suppose that the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles would provide the respite, but so it was, for it was the RMV that presented me with a glimpse of post-modern culture.

I had occasion to renew my driver’s license the other day, and since I found myself in the neighborhood of one of their offices, I chose to present myself in person rather than manage the process on line. Here, dear reader, is an excerpt from the application that was handed me: “Check here,” we’re instructed, “if your name has changed.” “Check here,” it goes on to say, “if your mailing address has changed.” And then, “Check here if your residential address has changed.” So far, so good, yes? Finally, “Check here if sex has changed. Note: Additional documentation may be required.”

Now at first blush (and the choice of that word is quite deliberate), one is taken aback. Can it be that the number of people whose sex has changed warrants a separate line? But then: How thoughtful of the Registry, since any oral interchange between applicant and clerk on the matter at hand might well be a tad awkward. So even if the number be small, why not avoid the potential embarrassment (more likely the clerk’s than the applicant’s)?

On closer reading, however, the issue becomes more complicated. Note the subtle shift in wording: With regard to name, we’re asked whether “your” name has changed, but with regard to sex, the pronoun is omitted, and we’re asked simply whether “sex has changed.” Which question, I am bound to say, seems to me an invasion of privacy, the more so since we’re then warned that “additional documentation may be required.” Unless, of course, the Registry is offering counseling on the side. And why not? We can register to vote at the Registry, even though voting has no intrinsic relationship to driving. Why not imagine an array of ancillary services, including comfort and counseling in the event that “sex has changed?”

But wait: sometimes sex changes for the better. Ah, that could well be what the Commonwealth wants to know, the kind of information it could then include in its efforts to attract tourism and business. “Come to Massachusetts, where sex is better!” Or: “Need a change (if you know what we mean)? Come to Massachusetts!” Or maybe it’s social scientists who want the data, hoping they can then do correlations between changes in sex and changes in, say, the performance of the stock market or video rentals, not to mention Viagra sales.

But let’s revert to the original assumption, that the item means to learn not whether our sex has changed, but whether our gender has changed. That would seem to be a fairly straightforward inquiry – except that it is not always clear what we mean by “change.”

For example: There must be an equivalent of a Registry of Motor Vehicles in Israel. If there is, and if its officials are at all punctilious, then their problem with this matter of sex change turns out to be rather more involved than our own. For in Israel, sex change has been employed as a tool of diplomacy and even national security. Take the case of Ehud Barak, Israel’s erstwhile prime minister – who, back when he was a distinguished commando in the Israel Defense Forces, famously entered Beirut disguised as – you guessed it, a woman. (Could this by what they mean when they call him “Israel’s most decorated soldier?”)

And now suppose that the Beirut escapade happened in the very year in which Mr. Barak’s driver’s license was up for renewal. To perjure himself, or to “fess up” – and thereby risk breaching what was still a closely guarded secret? To try to finesse the matter by winking at the clerk? I don’t think so, not under these ambiguous circumstances.

Oh well. The Registry’s plainly trying. After all, in a stodgier and rather more inquisitorial era, they might have asked, “Referring to your most recent driver’s license, are you now of the same gender which is therein specified? If not: Which gender best describes you today? And: Please be sure to report to the Registry within 30 days any future change in your gender.”

The truth is, of course, that the Department of Motor Vehicles of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, however curious the wording of its license renewal application, is to be congratulated for its effort to accommodate transsexuals, whose special circumstances are far more often entirely ignored by government agencies. My mild spoof of and commentary on the Registry’s language do not gainsay my respect for and hearty endorsement of what they have tried to accomplish.

Contact Leonard Fein at [email protected]


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