Drew Cordes

Why Did I Change My Birth Certificate?

Filed By Drew Cordes | May 30, 2012 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: birth certificate, bureaucracy, transgender

birthcertificate.jpgIn what I hope will be the final bureaucratic adventure of my gender transition, I recently changed the sex on my birth certificate. This change will help circumvent a lot of other potential bureaucratic and legal nightmares in the future (I hope). Many trans folks view the birth certificate change as an act of finality, the parting shot of transition. After all, it's right there in writing, all nice and legal - according to some old rule book and a couple strangers you've never met in an office somewhere, you are officially your desired gender now. Congratulations.

When I received my new copy in the mail, I did feel a sense of closure and relief, though it was mostly in the legal, official, my-ass-is-now-bureaucratically-covered sense. On the more personal, emotional side of things, I felt a little conflicted. The more I thought about it, the more guilty I felt, like I was now tacitly endorsing the arbitrary power system that oppresses us, the gender-nonconforming.

Why should I have to revise my birth certificate? I was born male. Changing it now is a lie. I recognize that some trans people find it empowering to revise their birth certificate, but all things being equal I'd prefer to let it be, so it could reflect the truth about my life's course. All my current documents reflect my female gender, because I am currently female. But the certificate of my birth 30 years ago? Well, 30 years ago, I was male.

Of course, all things are not equal, and that's the problem; not my birth certificate. The problem is the sociological customs and legal rights that stipulate it be changed. As it stands, the birth certificate is just another tool of oppression, another hoop we're forced to jump through for acceptance, or that much more frightening term, assimilation.

What our laws regarding birth certificates imply and endorse is that you can be transgender, as long as you go "all the way" - get the surgeries, change your documents, pass well, conform to the stereotypes of "male" or "female." When you do that, you're simply jumping from one prescribed box to the other, and people are increasingly OK with that (Bill O'Reilly of all people recently defended transgender Miss Universe contestant Jenna Talackova). It is nonconformity, of any type, that upsets people, and accordingly, our systems of power.

Keeping the M and my old name on my birth certificate while living as female with a new name and updated IDs creates discord. Even though that discord is minor, it's still too much for bureaucracy to bear. Hospitals wouldn't know "where to put me," employers would spend hours fretting over where I pee, and which TSA employee would pat me down after I opt out of the nude body scanner at the airport (which, by the way, I encourage everyone to do)? Never mind my present appearance, demeanor and physiology, there's a letter on a 30-year-old document that seems out of place! It'll take a team of lawyers, doctors, politicians, therapists and possibly Homeland Security to sort out that mess.

As deconstructing our government and its bureaucracies and rebuilding it all fresh is probably off the table in terms of possible solutions, let's try to find some simple, viable answers to this problem. One method could be to continue letting those who want to change their birth certificate do so, and allow those like me who prefer to let it be to obtain some other bureaucratic document or ID card that would basically say (only in more legalese language): "Hello, government worker, health-care provider, potential employer, educational institution, landlord, etc. You may have noticed this person's birth certificate is way different than all their other forms of ID. That's because this person was born with a different name and assigned sex. Don't worry. They're not trying to rip you off somehow or steal someone's identity. So, we, your government, assure you that you can accept this birth certificate with full confidence as a form of ID. We totally said it's OK."[1]

That could work. And seeing as how it would add yet another piece of paperwork to the bureaucratic machine and another fee for the processing and acquisition of said piece of paper, I think it's the solution the government would most likely favor. Though, I imagine many transgender people would find it a little disturbing to have to register their transness with the government to avoid legal hassles that cis people never have to deal with. Perhaps a better answer would be to devalue birth certificates as a form of identification. They're not very useful anyway. Aside from one's birthplace and parents the information only gets more and more out-of-date - names change all the time, as do residences, and I don't know about you but my foot is way bigger than that now. If our government assigns more legal weight to our more current documents, such as driver's licenses and passports, bureaucracies would lose one of their tools of discrimination.[2]

There are hoops one has to jump through to change the sex on driver's licenses and passports, too, of course. The requirements are easier to fulfill than the surgical requirements to change one's birth certificate, but they can be disenfranchising nonetheless. Not everyone can afford the therapy sessions or doctor appointments necessary to get the letters of recommendation necessary to change driver's licenses and passports. The struggle for social equality on any front is inexorably linked with class. It's a chicken-and-egg situation: The gender-nonconforming can't afford therapy and top medical treatment to obtain appropriate legal documents because they can't get a decent-paying job with health insurance, and they can't get a decent-paying job with health insurance because their documents are inaccurate and being gender-nonconforming makes employers uncomfortable.

So, both of my "solutions" are still classist, as almost all bureaucracies are classist. I'm not sure how to get out of that pickle, however. All bureaucratic fees waived for people earning under a certain income? I don't know. That's another column for another website. Is that deconstruct-and-rebuild-the-entire-government option still off the table? Why'd I discount that again?


[1] And while we're at it, we should probably allow our genderqueer/genderless friends to change the sex field in legal documents to a third undefined category, perhaps a Q or a ? or a Ø, if they so desire. Seriously, someone show me the harm in this.

[2] Not that this would make everything all better. In many areas of the country it's still perfectly legal to discriminate openly against someone because they're transgender. Not in the silent, sneaky let's-find-a-reason-to-fire-Bob way. We're talking about the boss stepping up to a mic at the Christmas party and addressing the whole office: "Hey gang! Just wanted to let everyone know that I'm firing Bob, and I'm doing it because he's transgender! I think that's icky! Happy trails, freak! Now, it's time for Secret Santa!" Yeah, that's all perfectly legal anywhere not listed here. However, the way many discriminating assholes and companies find out a person is trans in the first place is requiring information from birth certificates. So devaluing them would theoretically take that bullet out of the chamber.

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