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Devil's Advocate: Birth Certificates and Transgender

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Should Transgender People be Able to Change the Sex on Their Birth Certificates?

Recently, SexIs featured a story about three transgender people in New York City suing to have the sex on their birth certificates changed — normally forbidden unless they’ve had reconstructive surgery.

  Sex & Gender

I think you've got to draw a line in the sand somewhere, and for me that’s when you retroactively change the information on somebody's birth certificate. I don’t think I’m being sex negative when I argue that, either — it’s established sex positive lore that sex and gender are two entirely separate things: Gender is a social construct, but sex isn't.

This means that somebody can be born with a male body, but identify and eventually live as female and surgically alter their body to reflect that gender— but doesn't change the fact that they were born male.

They were born a particular sex — and identify with a particular gender. Two separate things, and two separate situations.

Take a hypothetical transgender woman. I totally support her right to live as a woman — and to have a driver's license and passport that identifies her as such. However. I don't think we should try to pretend that when she emerged from her mother, naked and bawling, the doctor didn't hold her up and proudly declare: "Congratulations, it's a boy."

  You Are What You Think

Look at it this way: I'm an American.

Except I’m not, or at least I wasn’t. I was born in Britain.

I just considered myself an American — and long before I ever actually was one.

I’ve been an American ever since I was in my teens, living in England but obsessed with moving to New York and following in the spirit of the founding fathers. Finally I am a naturalized American citizen — but a decade later, the fact that I'm now American doesn't mean I can pick up my birth certificate and change my nationality ‘at birth’ from British to American.

I wasn't born American — I just identified as American, lived as an American and eventually became an American. That's why my new nationality means so much to me — because of that journey.

The fact that I was born in Britain doesn't make me any less American; just as the fact that a transgender woman was born as a man doesn't make her any less of a woman. But even thought her gender now is different from the sex she was when she was born — and even if you change that on her birth certificate, it doesn't change the fact that she was born with a male body.

  You Can’t Always Change the Plumbing

This is significant for many reasons.

Just look at the example of Thomas Beatie; the world's first 'pregnant man.' Beatie was born a woman, but lived as a man. When his female partner discovered she was infertile, Beatie became pregnant (he still had functioning ovaries) and gave birth three times, to three healthy children.

For all intents and purposes (in terms of gender) Thomas Beatie is a man — but he's also the mother to three children. This is a situation that came about because he was born female, but became male. I personally think it's only right that a birth certificate recognizes that fact.

And this is the cold, hard fact about transsexuality — one can identify as and be one gender, but it doesn’t stop you physically being the alternate sex.

It becomes a very serious matter when you look at examples like Robert Eads — a transgender man who was born a woman. Despite being legally and socially recognized as a man — as is the right of every transgender person to choose who they are — he was diagnosed with ovarian cancer because he’d been born a woman

Because Robert’s gender reassignment didn’t necessitate a hysterectomy or oophorectomy, he contracted a form of cancer no one born as a man would ever be susceptible to. As a result, this transgender man was refused treatment by a dozen confused, horrified or just plain bigoted physicians — and died as a result.
Robert’s example proves that being “male” or “female” involves more than just ticking a box on a census form. I believe the principle that transgender men and transgender women were “born in the wrong body” — but the fact remains that they were born in that body — and will always have to deal with the medical consequences of that fact.

  True to Who You Are

And this is why I don’t believe transgender individuals should be able to change the sex on their birth certificates. Ultimately, the sex on that little slip of paper as much a part of who they are today as the gender with which they identify.

Changing sex on a birth certificate doesn’t change whether or not a transgender individual was male or female at birth — it just tries to delete the years of anguish and struggle they later went through before society finally acknowledged that their sex at birth was wrong.

And that’s not acceptable.

Because at the core of every transgender person’s identity is a struggle to overcome society’s expectations — that battle to be allowed to decide who and what they are, for nobody but themselves.

Celebrating that struggle means embracing not just who they are today — the gender that they identify as now — but also the momentous, difficult, incredible journey that it took for them to get there.

And that all begins with a birth certificate: One with the wrong sex written on it.


Contributor: Champagne and Benzedrine (Roland Hulme)

Rabbitmage - my British/American analogy is heavily flawed, but there's really no real-life comparison that's remotely appropriate, so came up with the best one I could.

Nerd - Nikki actually mentioned that, at least on regular ID. I think you're spot on. The second biggest thing I've learned from this debate is that sex on birth certificates, driver's licences, passports etc. seems to be entirely non-essential. We live in a supposedly equal society, so being male or female shouldn't theoretically affect your rights or privileges. Therefore, why do we bother including an entirely superfluous bit of information in the first place?

The Pirate Guy - you've spotlighted the biggest flaw in my argument. Intersex babies might have their sex arbitrarily assigned at birth; and it might not reflect their true biological sex (and certainly not what gender they later identify as.)

Sarah - I like the idea of a reissued document. Personally, as I argued earlier, I think 'birth certificate' is an inadequate name for a document if it is to be malleable and editable.

Contributor: Zoe Ellen Brain
Zoe Ellen Brain  

Actually the number of children born with ambiguous genitalia is about 1 in 1-2,000, as opposed to 1 in 3000 with Transsexuality. So it's far more common than you think.

About 1 in 3 sex reassignments at an early age result in what would be called Transsexuality under any other circumstances. The symptoms are 100% identical, but a diagnosis of Transsexuality can only be made if the patient isn't Intersexed.

There are also some Intersex conditions that result in a "natural sex change" - 5-alpha-reductase-2 deficiency, 17-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase-3 deficiency, and partial 3-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase deficiency are the most common causes. See []

Contributor: Zoe Ellen Brain
Zoe Ellen Brain  

Oh yes - I was born in the UK too. And I'm Intersexed, partial 3BHDD is suspected. Anyway, I'm being treated in Australia, where I live, for "Severe androgenisation of a non-pregnant woman". I look female, even to my OB/Gyn. I looked male at birth though, so my UK birth certificate says "boy".

The UK Gender Recognition Act only covers Transsexuals, and as a diagnosis of Intersex precludes a diagnosis of Transsexuality, my UK Birth Certificate can't be changed. They also don't change it if the applicant is married - so some people's legal sex depends on whether they're married or not in the UK. Biological realities are irrelevant. But at least they don't require evidence of surgery before making the change.

In Australia, I can only marry a man, as same-sex marriage is forbidden. In the UK, I can only marry another woman, also because same-sex marriage is forbidden. In the USA - it would depend on whether they look at my UK passport (F), or my UK birth certificate (boy), and which state I'm in.

I'll quote from the case Littleton vs Prange:
“Taking this situation to its logical conclusion, Mrs. Littleton, while in San Antonio, Texas, is a male and has a void marriage; as she travels to Houston, Texas, and enters federal property, she is female and a widow; upon traveling to Kentucky she is female and a widow; but, upon entering Ohio, she is once again male and prohibited from marriage; entering Connecticut, she is again female and may marry; if her travel takes her north to Vermont, she is male and may marry a female; if instead she travels south to New Jersey, she may marry a male.”

Anyone who thinks the law makes any kind of sense in this area hasn't been paying attention.

Contributor: anneiled

Above all, I want to know why you, a cisgender person, thinks they get to decide what trans folks do with their lives, bodies, and identities. Trans folks do different things with their legal identities for different reasons, and I don't think that as a cisgender person you have the knowledge or positionality to make a good critique about this.

Bleh, being trans is already so hard. Why do I have to deal with this kind of moralizing and mansplaining from a sex toy website?

Contributor: D W
D W  

You are getting opinion responses because you have used them to advance your position, particularly by attempting to define trans peoples' own identities as being first and foremost about a struggle. I do not doubt there are people who define in that way but there are many who do not. And you are seeing much anger because you are demanding to be permitted to define policy that does not impact your life. For us this isn't the academic topic as it is for you and we do not have the luxury of only thinking about it to make this post then going on about our lives; it is a factor of our daily experience.

In my state, the original is never altered. What is changed is that the original is impounded (still maintained in the state records but is significantly more difficult to access) and a new certificate is issued and it becomes the one more easily accessed.

It truly does not matter how much we like it: whatever it ought to be, the reality is that this document has become the basis of our identity in terms of any subsequent documentation and identification, and in a world where a very large number of people do not grasp the sex vs. gender distinction (they do, in fact, see it as the same and few if any laws make that distinction) the requirement becomes that our gender as now lived match what the sex/gender assigned to us at birth. If the goal is to get the unnecessary sex/gender marker off of documents, one I fully support, then the battle needs to begin with that. Until it is gone, though, focusing on our birth certificates has the effect of demanding we live with having an even greater risk to ourselves whenever anyone decides they need to see my ID for any of various reasons. This includes random dealings with authorities such as police (and, before anyone starts with "don't break laws" every time I have dealt with the police as a motorist in my state has been while in full compliance with the law; I happened upon one of their random license and registration checkpoints.) In my state, attempts to allow the sex/gender marker on state-issued identification to be altered without it matching the person's birth certificate have repeatedly failed. Every time the state attorney general has used his right to put them under legal suspension pending review to stop them.

Having my certificate amended has permanence in a way other options do not. So long as I can present that document, legally recognizing my lived sex/gender I get afforded the privilege of being able to have the other documents of my identity in alignment. If I lack that, my ability to have my documentation and identification match my lived sex/gender is legally capricious, as is the case with the passport example. What is asserted in a comment above is true, for the moment. However, a change in the administration may mean new executive orders that reverse this policy, possibly forcing the sex/gender listed on even that document to match the one on our birth certificate (which would match my state's current policy for driver's license, voter ID card, etc.)

On the note of unnecessary use of the sex/gender marker, my state's voter ID cards are probably the worst I've encountered. That field is the most prominent.

Contributor: Champagne and Benzedrine (Roland Hulme)

Zoe - The difference between the laws in each state is a HUGELY valid point and why I think this sort of thing needs to be decided at a federal level, rather than state to state. I LOVE the example you quoted - thank you.

anneiled - I never said anything of the sort. One of the points of my article was that transgender persons should have regular ID - passports and driver's licenses - recording their gender as they IDENTIFY as, not what it necessarily says on their birth certificate - and sadly that's a right many don't have in some states. If a birth certificate is the deciding factor in that, I see the logic in having the gender changed; although personally I don't agree that a document that's supposed to be a static record of events is adequate to that purpose (and the intersex issue that got raised here points out that the 'sex' box on a BC might be inadequate in and of itself.)

Hi DW - I think it's very important that transgender persons have ID that states their gender as what they identify as, not what it says on their birth certificate - that was, like, the second paragraph of my article. I totally understand you disagreeing with me on the paperwork issue, but unless you didn't fully read what I wrote I don't understand why you think I'm trying to take away any rights from anybody.

Contributor: MasonM

Currently, I'm not planning to attempt to change my birth certificate, for one very good reason. For long as it says 'F' on that certificate, I can legally be married to my husband, even if I have complete GRS, while if it said 'M' on it, then my marriage would be illegal in the state that I'm in, no matter how much we love one another.

As a friend put it when I came out to him recently 'So you have one of the only legal gay marriages in Oklahoma!'.

Contributor: snowyslut

You're not trans. You don't get to decide what us trans people do, no matter how good you think your reasoning is. Period. End of story.