April 04, 2011

Devil's Advocate: Birth Certificates and Transgender

by Roland Hulme

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.