In what could be a victory for transgender New Yorkers, a newly proposed bill to ease the process of changing the sex field on a birth certificate has been introduced by City Councilman Corey Johnson, who represents Manhattan’s third district on the West Side. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration support the bill, as do many leaders in the transgender community, while some activists say that serious challenges remain for the community.
Councilman Johnson said that the long-overdue legislation would enable transgender individuals to obtain gender confirmation from a broader range of qualified professionals. Under the new policy, an affidavit affirming that an applicant’s requested sex change accurately reflects their gender identity can come from a licensed physician, doctoral-level psychologist, clinical social worker, physician assistant, nurse practitioner and mental health counselor, among others.
“Third party medical providers can now attest that in their professional medical opinion, you are the gender you say you are,” said Johnson in a phone interview.
If passed by the full city council, the legislation will remove proof of sex reassignment surgery as a requirement for an updated birth certificate. “For some transgender individuals, convertive surgery is either not an option due to the individual’s medical history or simply not desired,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett in a statement on the department’s website. “The action under consideration will mean that transgender people no longer have to change their bodies to change their gender identity.”
“The status quo in New York City has a $20,000 surcharge on updating one’s birth certificate,” said Sarah McBride, a specialist for LGBT progress at the American Center for Progress in Washington D.C., referring to an estimate for the cost of sex reassignment surgery. In June 2014, Medicare announced it would begin to cover sex reassignment surgery, but many individuals remain ineligible for Medicare.
“In most states, the law still requires someone to have major surgery that isn’t covered by insurance, just so they can identify on a license as female or male. This a huge barrier for many people,” said Tyler Beebe, a Pennsylvania-born transgender woman who currently lives in Bushwick — where earlier this week a transgender woman was left in critical condition after allegedly being assaulted by a group of men. Referring to the incident, Beebe said she often walks home at night wearing a dress but not daring to speak, fearing her voice will set off attacks like these. “Maybe this bill will lead to acceptance in the next decade but it won’t be a quick fix for how people think,” she said.
Beebe called the proposed bill a fantastic step but said it would take time for full acceptance of the community. “It’s great that transgender individuals are getting more acceptance in the media and will be able to navigate bureaucracy in government,” she said, “but that side of it doesn’t have an immediate affect on hate crimes.”
The new legislation, and having proper documentation, would allow trans individuals to avoid having to discuss their gender with officials when trying to obtain a new driver’s license or marriage certificate, or doing anything that requires a birth certificate. “Outing oneself in that respect can lead to prejudice, harassment, discrimination and violence,” said McBride.
Zev Alexander, a transgender man and the president of New York University’s Queer Union, said that the bill is not as revolutionary as it may sound. “I think for people who have a certain measure of privilege, it will be a really helpful bill, but there are a lot of trans people who remain outside the transgender category as we know it, and that’s the difficulty,” said Alexander. He mentioned transgender black women as an example of people who are excluded from “the common narrative “ of transgender people, and said that they often suffered violence and had difficulty accessing the legal system due to their race and economic status.
“Bills like this further the systematic categorization of human beings in general,” said Alexander. “I would like to see a world where your safety and legal status are not mutually exclusive.”
Councilman Johnson said in response, “There is no lawyer involved here. Birth certificates are used to get accurate drivers’ licenses, getting jobs, and accessing government benefits — regardless of what race you are.”
Allison Steinberg from Empire State Pride Agenda, a New York statewide LGBT civil rights and advocacy group, agreed that more work needs to be done to ensure equality and safety. “We know that transgender individuals still face more harassment, discrimination and violence than any other minority demographic in the country,” she said, referring to a 2012 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs which found that transgender people (particularly transgender women) were the top group most likely to experience violence.
“Does this solve everyone’s problems? No, but that is hardly an indictment of this specific policy proposal,” said McBride. “This is about insuring that transgender people can remove barriers to have access to facilities, programs, and benefits that they are rightfully entitled to.”
According to Harvard University’s LGBTQ Policy Journal, nationally, the percentage of transgender people who are unable to update identification and official records to reflect their lived gender varies from 41 percent for driver’s licenses and 51 percent for Social Security records to 74 percent for birth certificates. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey showed that in 2008-2009, 40 percent of transgender people faced harassment when presenting identity documents that did not match their gender identity.
Currently, to change the sex on a birth certificate in New York City, the Department of Health requires documentation of court-ordered name change, proof of convertive surgery including the surgical operative report and a post-operative exam by a physician confirming that the change of sex was completed. If the bill is enacted, New York City, which issues its own birth certificates, will join New York State, which changed its gender identification requirements in June 2014, and the states of California, Iowa, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia, whose birth certificate policies do not require proof of surgery.
Asked about difficulties he faced along the way, Councilman Johnson said,”Whenever you are doing something new or progressive, the details matter. Working out the details of the third party medical providers, working out the details of what is to be done with old birth certificates and taking into consideration the concerns of the trans community, all of it matters.”
The proposed legislation will be considered during a health committee hearing in November and will go to the City Council for a vote in January. “My hope is that the full council adopts my bill in January, and that the board of health adopts its proposal to change these regulations so that trans individuals will finally have vitally important documents,” said Johnson. The councilman said he did not know if the bill would go into effect immediately if adopted in January.