On Oct. 30th, the New York City Board of Health held a public hearing on a recent proposal to amend article 207.05 of the New York City Health code — detailing the acquisition of birth certificates. The “notice of intention to change” proposes that transgender individuals be allowed to request a new birth certificate in which they can choose their sex — without any proof of sex reassignment surgery.Under the likely amendment, applicants would be required to have their name changed and have lived under the sought gender for two or more years. With a signed affidavit from a mental health professional and doctor asserting permanence of the change, applicants would be granted a new birth certificate. No operation necessary.
Since 1971, New York City has allowed transgender individuals the ability to request new birth certificates that instead omit sex all together. Given proof of sex reassignment surgery and an agreement to a post-op physical to determine permanence, new documentation was granted.
Today, the push for change comes as advocates claim the 1971 policy excludes individuals who cannot afford surgery and fails to give applicants what they really want — legal documentation stating them as female instead of male, or male instead of female.
While the proposal can seem like a move in the right direction for a generally underrepresented and heavily discriminated minority, its implications for the future won’t necessarily be as progressive as hoped.
First, allowing applicants to change the sex displayed on their birth certificate, a document that states biological statistics at the time of birth, is inherently flawed. True, some transgender individuals might have lived their entire life as a man or woman, but without a sex reassignment surgery (and even with), their biological sex remains the same as it was at birth. Gender is a fluid social construct and can, thus, be changed, but sex — a biological statistic — cannot be.
Allowing completely new documentation with no mention of previous history defeats the essential purpose of documentation in the first place. Birth certificates aren’t used for social standings — biological sex needs to be known for statistical, physical and, most importantly, medical reasons. In medical emergency, a patient’s treatment will depend on whether he or she is a man, woman, or a transgender — not as whatever is chosen.
Additionally, a whole array of problems and complications would arise from the proposed change. For instance, does a male-to-female transgender play in men’s sports leagues? Can a male-to-female transgender marry a man, and then change back to their original sex? He or she certainly won’t be legally bound to gender.
Beyond these smaller complications, the change wouldn’t necessarily serve the purpose of promoting acceptance of transgender individuals. In fact, forcing applicants to chose between being a man or a woman furthers societal norms surrounding gender as they are today. Transgendering is an exercise in blurring the line between sexes. Having to choose one or the other merely polarizes the two. Does a transgender person have to be a man or a woman? Why can’t a third, fourth or even fifth gender exist? After all, while there might be only two biological sexes, gender has the capability of being socially reconstructed.
True, it’s a radical notion to think that gender will be redefined into five different types, but think about it this way: would it be more acceptable to have a completely unisex bathroom without any urinals, or would it be preferable to have male-to-female transgenders (who still have male genitalia) using a woman’s bathroom? Liberals and conservatives alike — it’s a hard choice that will eventually have to be made.
While advances for transgender rights are few and far between today, true progression will take place in time. Perhaps in the future, sex and gender will be required on legal documentation. And in this idealistic discrimination-free future, having the two mismatch won’t be anything but celebrated diversity. For today, though, allowing individuals to alter documentation of their birth sex — a statistic that will always be necessary — is not a step forward. It’s merely a complicated step to the side.