Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
States are not politically nimble enough to secure identity rights for some of their most vulnerable populations. Cities can do better.
Before this month, Naz Seenauth might have faced a serious problem the next time he applied for a job. His most important official personal document says that he's the wrong person. As Reuters reported in in November, while his driver's license gets his gender right, his birth certificate says that his gender is female.
Fortunately, Seenauth had the foresight to be born in New York City. This week, the New York City Council passed a law that will enable transgender persons to correct their birth certificates without requiring that they get surgery to do so. Now, based only on the verification of his doctor, Seenauth can get his birth certificate corrected.
"Transgender lives involve a lot of bureaucracy," says Andrea "Andy" Bowen, executive director of Garden State Equality, an organization that is pushing for the same rights for New Jersey that were recently won in New York City. "There are a handful of core documents in your life that you need to show to people repeatedly. It seems boring, in a sense, and it is very technical, but it’s really important to trans people to get docs that match who we are."
New Jersey moved one step closer to securing those identity-document rights this week, as a state Senate committee approved a bill similar to the one passed in New York City. But last year, a similar bill passed by the New Jersey state legislature was vetoed by Republican Governor Chris Christie.
While New York City can decide for itself how to deal with vital-statistics corrections, Jersey City cannot. Only two cities in the U.S. issue their own birth certificates: Washington, D.C., because it is not a state or part of a state, and New York City, because it's New York City (a much larger city than most). And as of this week, both cities have granted transgender persons the right to change their vital records without demonstrating they have had surgery as part of their gender transition.
This is important for any number of reasons. For one, there is no single surgery for male or female "gender reassignment," and few of the surgeries out there that are sometimes chosen by transitioning people (including elective double mastectomies or facial feminization) are covered by insurance providers. There is also no single path to transition: Many trans people simply do not want any surgery. Any transgender person needs correct vital records, though, and nationwide, official recognition for gender reassignment has been linked to surgery since the 1970s.
"It is not intuitive to people who aren't trans that people have a right to documents that match their gender identity," Bowen says. The implications, however, can range from annoying (being pulled over with an incorrect driver's license by an insensitive cop, for example) to dangerous (entering the corrections system under the wrong gender). And key to the most significant outcomes is the birth certificate—the "mother document," as Bowen puts it.
Last year, the District of Columbia passed the JaParker Deoni Jones Birth Certificate Equality Amendment Act of 2013, which enables transgender persons born in D.C. to correct their birth certificates by presenting an affidavit from a licensed health care provider testifying to the person's gender transition. (Bowen wrote about her experience advocating for the D.C. reform in a moving essay for DCist earlier this month.) That means that every city in the U.S. that can secure these identity and privacy rights for its transgender population now has secured those rights.
While there have been some victories at the state level, including the Vital Statistics Modernization Act (now the law in California as of 2014), most states are lagging behind city governments and agencies, which have wider discretion over things like driver's licenses. The federal government has also relaxed standards for corrections for U.S. passports, Social Security records, Department of Defense discharge forms, and other official documents.
Looming even further on the horizon is an examination of how the nation allocates its vital statistics (a huge topic in epidemiology). As the populations of cities continue to grow, the city, as a municipal entity, may be the more appropriate vehicle for issuing weighty official documents such as birth certificates.
At the very least, many states are not politically nimble enough to secure identity rights for some of their most vulnerable populations. Many, according to Kyla Bender-Baird's book on the matter, have no written policies about correcting gender markers on driver's licenses—much less official policies on whether government documents should be amended or reissued entirely.
Cities can do better, says Bowen. "It's a civil-rights thing, and it's a good-government thing."