Health Department Now Ready to Ease Transgender Birth Certificate Changes

West Side Councilmember Corey Johnson. | DONNA ACETO

West Side Councilmember Corey Johnson. | DONNA ACETO

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | In a decisive reversal of its position from eight years ago, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is prepared to reform its regulations regarding amendments to birth certificates so that transgender people born here can change the gender designation on that record without providing proof of transition surgery.

The department’s proposal would also dramatically ease the documentation from an attending health care professional that those seeking a gender marker change must provide, by widening the range of professionals eligible to affirm an applicant’s request. Qualified professionals would include medical doctors, psychologists, licensed social workers, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, marriage and family therapists, and midwives.

A professional drawn from this group would have to attest that the individual’s current gender designation “does not match or align with the applicant’s affirmed sex or gender identity” and that the marker sought “more accurately reflects the applicant’s sex.”

Legislation by Councilmember Corey Johnson tracks administrative proposal from de Blasio administration

According to Democrat Corey Johnson, the City Council’s out gay Health Committee chair who is sponsoring legislation that mirrors the health department proposal, the broadened group of professionals whose credentials will be recognized by the new policy will make it “the most expansive and most forward-thinking in the country.”

Johnson’s committee will hold hearings in November on his legislation and he hopes to win a full Council vote in January, at about the same time the health department proposal gets final approval. In a Johnson press release, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito voiced her support for the bill.

The twin proposals won praise from advocates, who have long worked on the issue and emphasized the significance of accurate identity records for transgender people, particularly in a post-9/11 world where security measures are routine in many day-to-day venues. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 40 percent of transgender Americans have faced harassment while presenting identity documents that don’t match their gender identity.

Michael Silverman, the executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), said, “We applaud both of these efforts to help transgender people born in New York City update their birth certificates to match who they truly are. These proposed policy changes reflect modern medical standards for transgender health care.”

A release from the Empire State Pride Agenda praising the health department and Johnson quoted New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman saying, “You don’t realize the importance of having a birth certificate that accurately reflects who you are until you face the challenges that transgender New Yorkers regularly struggle with –– harassment, denials of service, employment problems, and other endless bureaucratic nightmares caused by a single ineradicable mark on their basic proof of identity.”

In 2006, the health department preliminarily proposed a similar reform –– though not as far reaching –– and held public hearings where the feedback was nearly unanimously positive. At the last minute, however, the department’s commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, who now heads the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pulled the plug on the change. He told Gay City News at that time, “We were at fault” for not consulting with other parties such as law enforcement, hospital administrators, and schools that have requirements for sex-segregated facilities, including cells, patient wards and rooms, and showers.

Johnson told Gay City News that he raised the birth certificate issue in his first meeting with Dr. Mary Bassett, the new health commissioner named at the beginning of the de Blasio administration.

“She said, 'I hear you. I need to educate myself,’” Johnson recalled. He said he and his staff, the health department, other affected city agencies, and advocates “worked on it substantively since early July.”

Johnson said the spring decision by New York State, which oversees birth certificate records for all municipalities outside the city, to drop its surgical requirement “galvanized” the effort to move the issue along at City Hall.

The US State Department dropped its requirement for proof of surgery in issuing passports in 2010, and since then many other federal agencies have followed suit.

Silverman said that a TLDEF suit challenging the existing surgical requirement also played a role in moving the ball. He said the city was about to be forced to provide witnesses for deposition in that suit and the presiding judge commented that if the health department intended to change its policy, it made sense to do so before attorneys began taking testimony.

“And of course with New York State moving forward and removing its surgical requirement, it made it all but ridiculous for the city not to,” Silverman added.

Johnson took care to note that even though both the federal and state governments moved faster on reform, neither adopted as thoroughgoing a change as the city is contemplating.

Meanwhile, in the State Senate, Brad Hoylman, an out gay Democrat who, like Johnson, represents Manhattan’s West Side, has filed legislation to change the form of birth certificates so a child with two fathers or two mothers is not shown with one parent designated by the wrong gender. Hoylman also sponsors legislation that would allow “intended” parents of children born as the result of artificial insemination or surrogacy to be listed on the certificate at the time of birth –– as well as a bill to end the state’s ban on surrogacy contracts.