For the fourth time in nearly five years, New Jersey lawmakers are pushing to make it easier to change the gender listed on a birth certificate, something that has personal and practical implications for tens of thousands of residents whose identity doesn’t align with the details listed on their government records.
On Monday the Senate health committee unanimously passed the latest version of bipartisan legislation, which was amended to grant individuals the power to request the change without the approval of, or involvement from, a healthcare professional. If enacted, the bill would likely make New Jersey’s records system one of the most progressive in the nation.
Under current Garden State law, a physician must certify that an individual has undergone sex-reassignment surgery for the state to amend the gender on a birth certificate. As a result, it essentially excludes those who can’t afford — or don’t want to go through — this costly invasive procedure from obtaining documents that confirm who they are, according to supporters of the reform.
“This bill impacts a lot of people who haven’t been as blessed as I have,” explained Robyn Gigl, an attorney who had surgery — and changed her records — years ago. “I was able to do a lot of things that most trans people are not able to do,” Gigl said.
Involvement of physician
New Jersey’s current law is not out of the norm, according to information compiled by the civil rights organization Lambda Legal, which shows that four out of five states require some kind of court or physician sign-off for the birth-certificate change, and half demand the individual undergoes surgery. Four states essentially prohibit this revision entirely, including Tennessee, which codified the ban in statute.
But advocates for the reform, including Pamela Daniels, a Republican who worked in former Gov. Christie Whitman’s administration, stressed that no government should require that individuals undergo surgery to permit a paperwork change. In fact, the current law misses a larger point, she said.
“Our identity, our individual identity, is our personal property. Period. And the main identifier is our birth certificate,” Daniels said.
Versions of the legislation — championed by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the committee chair, Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), and former Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), among others — have been debated since 2013. Bills had passed both houses several times but were vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who raised concerns about potential security lapses. “Birth certificates unlock access to many of our nation and State’s critical and protected benefits such as passports, driver’s licenses, and social services, as well as other important security-dependent allowances. Accordingly, I remain committed to the principle that efforts to significantly alter State law concerning the issuance of vital records that have the potential to create legal uncertainties should be closely scrutinized and sparingly approved,” Christie wrote in 2015.
Better chance now that Christie’s gone
Christie was replaced earlier this month by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who received a lot of support from LGBT advocates. Supporters of the bill believe they now have a better chance to get it over the finish line.
“With advancements in modern medicine, we know that gender reassignment surgery is no longer the only option for transitioning, yet the law takes a one-size-fits-all approach,” Vitale said. “It does not account for nonsurgical transitioning which usually includes physical, psychological, social, and emotional changes.”
While accurate data is limited, advocates estimate there are at least 60,000 transgender, non-binary, i.e., those who don’t adhere to strict male or female identities, or otherwise gender non-conforming residents in New Jersey. In 2007 the state extended civil rights protection to this community and, in recent years, there has been an ongoing effort to provide other protections, including targeted healthcare.
But discrimination continues, including for transgender children, prompting a call from some lawmakers for an additional review of Garden State policies. Last year, then 9-year-old Joe Maldonado made national news for becoming the first openly transgender Cub Scout in the nation. The boy joined a pack in Maplewood after he was banned from a group in Secaucus.
According to the U.S. Transgender Survey from 2016, more than half the trans students questioned reported being harassed at school and nearly 40 percent experienced serious psychological stress. Suicide rates are unusually high among transgender youth.
“Anybody who is a parent knows that once you are a parent, you actually feel your child’s pain,” noted attorney Jodi Argentino, who testified in favor of the bill on behalf of her 4-year-old daughter, who is transgender. The girl, whose birth certificate lists her as a boy, gets frustrated when people insist she is male.
“Imagine taking that child, with their birth certificate, to register for dance class, or town sports, or school, and having her experience the pain over and over when someone refers to her as being a boy. That’s why I’m here,” Argentino told the committee. Changing the law would “help her (daughter) be accepted and avoid some bias,” she said.
Enabling easier birth certificate modifications would also benefit adults, supporters said. Jennifer Williams, a Trenton resident, said all her documents now identify her as a woman, except for her birth certificate — a situation that could cause confusion when she dies.
A birth cert ‘consistent with reality’
“It’s important to have an identification document that conforms to who I am,” said Celeste Fiore, an attorney who gets at least seven calls a week from other individuals who want to amend their Garden State birth records.
“From applying for travel documents or driver’s licenses to school registration, a birth certificate is a necessary document and must be consistent with reality,” Weinberg added.
The legislation, (S-478), would require the state registrar to amend a birth certificate to change the gender — and name, with court approval — based on the receipt of a form signed by the individual, or their guardian, that states: “I (petitioner’s full name), hereby attest under penalty that the request for a change in gender to (female, male, or undesignated/non-binary) is to conform my legal gender to my gender identity and is not for any fraudulent purpose.”
Advocates praised the option to “self-attest” to the need for a paperwork change, something that currently exists in only a handful of states. Fiore, who is non-binary, also approved of allowing for options beyond male and female.
One person, John Tomicki, a perennial opponent of legislation to expand abortion or LGBT rights, testified against the proposal, urging lawmakers to leave the current policy in place.
The measure, introduced just two weeks ago, now heads to the Senate Budget Committee, which will review the potential fiscal impact on the state registrar and other offices; previous reviews by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services suggested the cost increase would be negligible. An Assembly version awaits introduction.