NJ poised to be among states with most comprehensive transgender civil rights

Not long after Aaron Potenza moved to New Jersey 10 years ago, a trip to the Motor Vehicle Commission highlighted a growing problem within the transgender community.

“I brought all my paperwork. I brought my drivers license that said male. They were confused, after a few minutes they said to me, OK but in New Jersey we require proof of surgery,” said Potenza, Garden State Equality‘s director of programs.

Those requirements could soon change now that a package of transgender rights bills recently cleared the Legislature and await Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature. The largest measure allows residents to change their gender identity on a birth certificate without undergoing gender reassignment surgery. It requires a form, under penalty of perjury, stating the change is not for fraudulent purposes. A companion bill makes similar changes for death certificates.

“A lot of trans people, for a variety of reasons, don’t have the surgeries, and I think our society, our culture, the way we talk about this in the public sphere, is often around an assumption that that is what makes you transgender, to have had that surgery,” Potenza said.

Potenza says having documents that reflect how you identify doesn’t just affirm a sense of self. It eliminates the potential for stigma and discrimination.

“If you’re showing documents that don’t match how you live in the world then you’re outing yourself, which can be problematic in terms of employment. It’s an issue for a lot of young people in schools,” Potenza said.

“And If there’s one thing that was the tipping point, is just to live my senior years without the horrors of paperwork nightmares,” said transgender rights advocate Barbara Siperstein.

The bill is named after Siperstein, who only made the decision to have reassignment surgery so she wouldn’t face road blocks to her health care.

“If I’ve played one small part in that, before I leave this Earth, it’ll make me happy,” Siperstein said.

Another measure creates a Transgender Equality Task Force to review state programs and policies. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle championed the bills. She said it solidifies the state’s place as a national leader in transgender civil rights.

Once signed, New Jersey joins just 16 other states and the District of Columbia in not requiring surgery or a court order to change the gender marker on a birth certificate. It will also become only the third state in the country allowing residents to identify their gender as “non-binary” for persons who don’t identify as male or female.

In a statement, Murphy’s spokesperson said, “The governor looks forward to working with the legislature to make sure that no New Jersey resident is impacted by discriminatory practices.”

Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the bill twice, saying it raised security concerns opening opportunities for fraud and abuse, though his opponents argued it was politically motivated by his presidential bid. Now they’re hoping Murphy’s progressive agenda will see it through.

“Pieces of paper and documentation doesn’t dictate who we are as individuals. Who we are as a people dictates what’s on those papers,” said Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality. “So the law wasn’t right before. It’s been corrected and now it’s the way it should be.”

Murphy is expected to sign the bill sometime in June, coinciding with LGBT Pride Month.