Things to know if you want your FAFSA…

I received this letter:

30-JUN-15
Dear Shayle,

We received the correction(s) made to your FAFSA application whereby you have changed your response to question # 21. Are you male or female. To be eligible for federal student aid, male citizens and male immigrants residing in the U.S. aged 18 through 25 are required to register with the Selective Service System, with limited exceptions. This requirement applies to any person assigned the sex of male at birth. The Selective Service System and the registration requirement for males preserve America?s ability to provide resources in an emergency to the U.S. Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard). For more information about the Selective Service System, visit http://www.sss.gov.
Being that you answered MALE, you must submit proof of selective service registration.
The Selective Service reported that you have not registered with them. If you were born as a female or were born before 1960, registration is not required, please submit a copy of your birth certificate to verify your gender at birth and/or your date of birth if born before 1960 and correct your FAFSA accordingly (see page 2 of FAFSA instructions for further instructions on question 21). If you believe you have already registered or are exempt, please check the Selective Service website at http://www.sss.gov, select “registration info” and then “Who Must Register?”. If you have documentation proving an exemption, submit it to our office. For more information, please contact the Selective Service at 847-688-6888 only after reviewing the SSS website information.

Ok. Things to note. First, I changed my gender marker on my FAFSA when my legal gender change cleared because, surprise, Financial Aid likes your documents to match. Second:

“Are you male or female.”

Note the period and the absence of a question mark. Subtle, I know, but powerful. I’ve been asked this question many times throughout my life, though usually in the form of “are you a boy or a girl(?/.)”, and the punctuation gives me hints towards the askers intention. When a child asks, it is usually with a question mark, and my response, no matter what it is, taken as an answer to a question. As I grew older, I learned quickly that when this was a statement (when there was clearly no question mark), it was followed by violence – usually verbal, sometimes physical. So for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to be not asking me, but rather issuing the statement “Are you male or female.” was loaded. Clearly, something isn’t right, isn’t normal, are you sure…you don’t want to be making this mistake. Also, as a statement, there isn’t room for negotiation.

As I mentioned in the video, I was prepared for this. A friend had shared his experience with me a few months ago. During our conversation I sat wide-eyed. I had never thought about that particular hurdle. Weeks later I wrote an essay about some of the challenges facing trans graduate students and thought about asking him if I could include his story. Turns out all I had to do was wait a few more weeks and it would be my own.

I spent a week in Hawaii mid-July. My mother had visited right before and I’d asked her to bring a copy of my birth certificate. As it stands today, the state of California DMV and social security acknowledge me as legally male. The state of Illinois and the USA passport agency recognize me as female. And that’s only because I haven’t gotten around to changing those documents yet. It’s funny that birth certificates are seen as the end all in this situation, because Illinois has one of the more easy processes of changing your birth certificate. But the burden of time and money that these processes require has slowed me down. I took my birth certificate to the Financial Aid office and grimaced a little as I saw the very young boy I had to talk with at the counter. An aside: I was just months shy of being accepted into the UH system as male when I applied. So when all my friends were posting pictures of their PhD acceptance letters, I tossed mine aside. UH and Fulbright, both sent letters misgendering me, even after I wrote about it extensively in my application and called both offices to talk with their coordinators about it. I realize it’s automated, I was just hoping for better. So I tell the boy I have a hold on my FAFSA and I need him to file this form for me. He seems confused. We talk until finally I say “I’m trans, I don’t have to register for the selective service.” He’s still confused. “I was born female.” His supervisor assures me everything will be ok. I walk out of the office into the blistering Hawai’i sun and look around at the summer school students and wonder if this how it’s going to be here.

I’m sick of having to out myself because I need money. I was lucky enough to land a TA position last minute, but otherwise I would have been really hurt by the delay in financial aid. I was also lucky that my mom keeps impeccable records, otherwise a request to the State of Illinois for a replacement copy of my birth certificate would have delayed it more. Many trans students aren’t as lucky.

Later FAFSA emailed again telling me to change the answer to question #21 back to female. I just couldn’t do it. I emailed Financial Aid and asked if there was another way we could handle this. There was.

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2 thoughts on “Things to know if you want your FAFSA…

  1. Shayle, this post really resonated with me. I was part of the first cohort (born in 1960) of men required to sign up in the post-Vietnam war draft registration campaign. I didn’t register, but fortunately for me, by the time the law you’re dealing with took effect, I was earning enough that I didn’t need Federal financial aid to finish up my time in university. Back then, it looked like the draft would be brought back to prepare for war with Iran. It’s interesting to read your post at a time when, for the first time since then, the chances for peaceful relations between the US and Iran look excellent.

    I was troubled a bit by a comment you made in the video, because in fact all cisgender men do have to think about this issue when getting financial aid. For a lot of men, registering for the draft is a moral dilemma, since we oppose the wars our country has been fighting and don’t want to commit to fighting in those wars. This may be the only law that gives you trans privilege, so enjoy it if you can. (Privilege in the sense that, the indignity of having to produce a birth certificate and deal with those chowderheads in the financial aid office ain’t so bad, compared to getting killed as a drafted soldier.)

    There has never been any litigation of the constitutionality of the Solomon Amendment (the law you’re dealing with) applied to someone over 26. Challenges brought by men under 26 back in the 1980’s failed because the courts said they could simply register and avoid the penalty … but men over 26 cannot register. I imagine you will be busy studying sea creatures and reading arcane journals for the next few years, but if you are interested in fighting that law, I can put you in touch with the military law attorneys who know it best.

    Just a quick Google search makes me think that the financial aid people you’re dealing with are clueless, and that getting the paperwork you need from Selective Service is straightforward. The SS is supposed to give you a letter that simply states, without giving a reason, that you were not required to register. I hope this all works out OK for you.

    Congrats on the TA position! Although they don’t know it yet, that’s good news for the undergrads who will get to experience your passion for science firsthand.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful response, Steve. The history is really interesting, and I can’t imagine how difficult those decisions were back then. As for Financial Aid today (and really so many things like it), I find that a lot of folks aren’t savvy to trans issues and don’t actually know the policies. I went to change my passport today and ended up explaining to the woman there what she needed to turn in for me (she also asked me a ton of personal an inappropriate questions about my transition). In this FA instance, it’s also interesting that the birth certificate was the end all be all, because it’s possible to change that too. And given the debate around trans folks in the military today, I’m not so sure the government would be chomping at the bit to get all those trans ladies signed up for the SS.

Thoughts?

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