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Scorned by Florida DMV, Gay Couple Amends Name-Change Policy

by Michelle  Lim
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Wednesday Feb 20, 2013
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A simple change of name license procedure in a Lee County, Florida DMV turned out to be an experience Robert "Mark" Opthof and his husband Ray Opthof would never forget. When Mark Opthof walked into the Lehigh Acres Department of Motor Vehicles in September 2012 to have the name on his license changed from Robert Martin Johnson to his new married name Opthof, he was met with unnecessary hostility from one of the DMV’s employees for bringing in an out-of-state marriage license. Under Florida law statute 741.212, gay marriage is unrecognized.

This statute rendered the marriage certificate that Mark and his husband received in New York last September as insufficient documentation to get the new license processed. But instead of being informed of this politely, Mark was met with undue rudeness. Ray Opthof told EDGE that their marriage license was thrown across the counter, with the clerk saying, "Don’t bring this thing back here! This means nothing here! It’s of no value. We don’t recognize it."

Mark Opthof said he returned a second time with his reissued passport and Social Security card under his new married name, which is recognized under Florida law as sufficient identification for a name change. His new license was then issued and he left the DMV thinking that it was all resolved.

But two and a half months later, the couple’s lives were turned upside down when they received a letter in the mail from the same DMV notifying Mark Opthof that his license was being revoked due to "insufficient documentation." Sensing an error, Mark and Ray decided to contest the revocation.

Nadine Smith, executive director at LGBT civil rights group Equality Florida, immediately put them in touch with attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Randall Marshall, legal director at ACLU, spoke to EDGE about the three-week negotiation process it took to resolve the case.

"We did try to secure an administrative hearing, but were told somewhat repeatedly that a hearing was not available in this situation, so it took several phone calls from our cooperating attorneys to the folks up at Tallahassee for them to say ’Okay, you’re entitled to an administrative hearing,’" said Marshall.

ACLU was persistent in resolving the matter quickly for the Opthofs, who said they were terribly upset and inconvenienced by the whole situation.

"No married couple should have to go through that. It totally invalidated us, as if they were saying, ’In this state you mean nothing. Your marriage means nothing to us.’ Well, I’m sorry, but it means everything to us."

"For me to get a letter in the mail that said I wasn’t going to have driving privileges anymore was kind of scary for me. I drive every day. I have to drive for work. It was nerve-racking," said Mark Opthof, who had to carry his passport around with him everywhere to prove his identity.

"No married couple should have to go through that. It totally invalidated us, as if they were saying, ’In this state you mean nothing. Your marriage means nothing to us.’ Well, I’m sorry, but it means everything to us," Ray Opthof told EDGE.

An administrative hearing was finally set for late February, but was rendered unnecessary by the immediate response of Alan Busenbark, operations and management consultant manager at the Tallahassee Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, who reissued the license and offered to rewrite the policy manuals. Busenbark was equally apologetic to the couple, stating that the situation should never have occurred in the first place.

"Many office staff cringe when they see an out-of-state same-sex marriage license, and become defensive," said Busenbark. Local officials who had seen the New York marriage certificate the first time Mark Opthof applied questioned the approval and issued a revocation.

The DMV then rewrote the policy manuals to reflect that a passport and Social Security card were sufficient documentation for a name change, to prevent the same situation recurring with every out-of-state marriage certificate.

The Opthof’s case is not the first of its kind, and it raises the issue of equal protection.

"It is clear that a straight individual who had changed their name through marriage and had a U.S. passport and a Social Security card in the new married name could walk into any department office in the state and obtain their driver’s license without question," said Marshall. "The fact that they rejected Mark’s application because they knew he had changed his name as a result of his New York marriage certificate does certainly raise a discrimination, if you will, based on people similarly situated."

In light of this, the couple and the ACLU were not inclined to settle for anything less than a policy change in order to let the LGBT community know that this is a mechanism by which they can obtain a Florida driver’s license without the hassle or the indignity of ever again having their marriage certificate rejected.

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