New Jersey will soon enact what could be the nation’s most progressive policies regarding vital records with a law that will allow individuals to change the gender listed on their birth certificates with relative ease, something that is important to transgender individuals and their advocates.
The state Senate unanimously approved legislation Thursday to allow Garden State residents to revise the gender on their birth certificates with a simple signed statement from the individual involved. Like many states, New Jersey now requires a letter from a healthcare professional attesting that the individual had undergone sex-reassignment surgery. The Assembly passed the measure late last month.
While a similar bill was vetoed several times by former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, for what he said were security concerns, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who took office in January, is likely to endorse the plan. Murphy has made clear his support for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) community and has received strong backing in return.
“Gov. Murphy has long been supportive of giving LGBTQ New Jerseyans the ability to ensure that their birth and death certificates conform with their gender identity. The administration is closely reviewing the legislation that was recently passed to advance this goal,” Murphy’s press secretary Dan Bryan told NJ Spotlight.
The measure, which would take effect in six months, is named the Babs Siperstein Law, in honor of Barbra Casbar Siperstein, a longtime LGBTQ advocate who was born in Jersey City. Siperstein served leadership roles in the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats and Garden State Equality, and was the first openly transgender delegate appointed to the Democratic National Committee, in 2009.
Reflecting a true identity
The issue is important to transgender individuals, their families, and advocates for both practical and personal reasons. In testimony earlier this year, people noted how it is important for security, travel, and civic life to have government documents that accurately reflect your true identity — as you present it to the world, not as you were born.
There are also clear psychological benefits of having public records that match an individual’s gender identity, supporters noted, especially for children. One mother testified about the pain of taking her 4-year-old daughter to sign up for dance class or town sports, and being forced to repeatedly present paperwork that claimed she was a boy.
While acceptance of gay lifestyles may be growing, studies show transgender individuals continue to face significant discrimination nationwide. The stress is particularly great on transgender teens and children: more than half report being harassed at school; nearly 40 percent experience significant anxiety, and the same proportion attempt suicide. And transgender residents of all ages struggle to find and access appropriate healthcare.
As a relatively progressive state, New Jersey — home to an estimated 60,000 residents who are transgender or nonbinary (they don’t adhere to the traditional male/female gender divide) — has already made some headway in better supporting LGBTQ individuals. In 2007, the state extended civil rights protections to this community and officials have sought to ensure transgender individuals have full protection under state’s health insurance laws.
Advances in LGBTQ healthcare
There have also been advances in healthcare for LGBTQ patients in the Garden State. Last year Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset opened what is considered the first clinic in the state devoted specifically to this community, PROUD Family Health; state Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal visited the facility Monday in conjunction with Pride Month, an LGBTQ celebration held in June. In addition, the Human Rights Campaign named 16 New Jersey facilities as health-equity leaders in its recent report.
When it comes to birth certificates, under current law transgender adults need a physician to certify they have undergone an invasive surgical procedure for the state to alter the gender on these vital records. Supporters of the change note this essentially excludes those who cannot afford, or don’t want, this costly surgery.
The legislation approved Thursday recognizes this disparity, said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), a lead sponsor. “Essentially we’re updating a standard state procedure to be more inclusive and reflective of our changing society,” she said.
“Life is not black and white like people once perceived it,” added Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), another sponsor.
The measure (S-478) — championed by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), among others — would require the state registrar to amend a birth certificate to change the gender listed, and the name, with court approval, based on the receipt of a form signed by the individual or a guardian that simply states: “I (petitioner’s full name), hereby attest under penalty that the request for a change in gender to (female, male, or undesignated/nonbinary) is to conform my legal gender to my gender identity and is not for any fraudulent purpose.”
New Jersey is far from alone with its current protocol. Research by the civil rights organization Lambda Legal shows that four out of five states require a physician or court official to sign off on a change. Half the states require a surgical procedure to amend the form and several outlaw any revisions at all.
But the tide may be turning nationwide. A handful of West Coast states now offer more than two gender options on birth certificates, and officials in New York City are considering adding a third category of “X” to the male and female choices now available, to allow transgender adults to update their forms.