Moves to Improve Gender Equality, Birth to Death, in New Jersey

Lilo H. Stainton | February 27, 2018 | Health Care
Lawmakers want changes to birth and death certificates for transgender New Jerseyans, also want task force

New Jersey could eventually have some of the most progressive gender-identity policies in the nation under proposals that would enable individuals and those closest to them to determine how they are described on key state identity documents.

The state Senate yesterday approved legislation enabling residents to request a change to the gender listed on their birth certificate — without the involvement of a healthcare professional, as is currently required. The ability to “self attest” to one’s gender identity is rare in state law, according to experts.

Lawmakers also advanced a bill to ensure death certificates properly reflect the gender identity of the deceased, regardless of physical attributes, and would require coroners to confirm this through conversations with friends or relatives, or documented statements. The proposal also clarifies and standardizes death certificates statewide.

A third measure calling for the creation of a Transgender Equality Task Force to comprehensively review state programs and policies also passed the Senate yesterday, with unanimous support.

Studies have shown transgender individuals — whose gender identity does not align with their biological sex at birth — are frequently denied access to healthcare or insurance coverage, suffer employment discrimination, and are harassed on the job or at school.

Governor stressed diversity

While these ideas have all been discussed before — and the birth certificate bill dates back six years — the push to improve New Jersey’s gender equality birth-to-death has gained momentum under Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who took office last month. Murphy stressed diversity and equality during his campaign and was endorsed by LGBT activists, including Garden State Equality, which has advocated for the birth certificate bill.

Former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, vetoed previous versions of the birth certificate legislation three times based on what he said were security concerns about altering a critical identity document.

But in passionate testimony in January, when the issue came before the Senate health committee, transgender New Jerseyans underscored the importance, on practical and personal levels, of having ID that properly reflects their personality. They downplayed security concerns, suggesting it was not likely criminals would seek to change their gender ID to somehow game the system.

“I don’t see too many people out in the real world who pretend to be transgender. It’s not something that a lot of people are doing,” noted Robyn Gigl, an attorney who works with other transgender clients. “There will be zero problems. People only attest to their gender identity in order to get the necessary documents.”

While accurate data is limited, advocates estimate there are at least 60,000 transgender, non-binary (individuals who don’t adhere to strict female or male identities), or otherwise gender non-conforming New Jerseyans. The state extended civil rights protections to this population in 2007, under then Gov. Jon S. Corzine, and has made some strides to better address the needs of trans individuals.

Unique health challenges

In 2016, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset opened New Jersey’s first clinic devoted specifically to treating transgender patients, a group that can present unique healthcare challenges. At the time, estimates suggested as many as 10,000 individuals were regularly traveling to New York or Philadelphia to receive specialized care.

The latest legislative proposals advanced by the Senate seek to continue this progressive march. Assembly versions are awaiting a hearing.

The birth certificate bill (S478), sponsored by Sens. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), allows an individual or their guardian to request a change in the document based on a simple statement that explains the revision is needed to conform with the person’s true gender identity.

New Jersey’s current law requires someone to present documentation of a sex change in order to modify the form; many individuals decline to go through this surgical procedure for personal or economic reasons. According to Lambda Legal, a civil rights group, four out of five states nationwide require some form of doctor’s approval.

Vitale said existing policy doesn’t account for modern medicine — or modern thinking.
“This bill removes the barriers that transgender New Jerseyans face when requesting changes to such an important identification document as their birth certificate to reflect who they are, and will help to expand anti-discrimination protections,” he said.

Who speaks for the deceased?

The death certificate measure (S493), championed by Vitale and Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), specifies that documents issued by coroners or medical examiners throughout the state should conform to one format that includes basic information about the individual and their death. (Death investigations are currently handled by a mix of state, regional and county offices and involve protocols that are not standardized.)

The proposal specifies that gender identity should not be based on physical characteristics alone or information from family members but should involve input from others chosen to speak for the deceased individual or memorialized statements created in advance.

The third bill, to create the task force (S705), sponsored by Vitale and Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), would establish a 17-member panel to review policies related to healthcare, housing, education, employment, and criminal justice and make recommendations to the Legislature and governor on how to improve equality. The group would consist of various state officials and public members appointed by legislative leaders with expertise in civil and transgender rights.