Transgender Coloradans hope third time’s the charm for change in birth certificate law
‘The birth certificate is incredibly important as an affirming document that says you are who you see yourself to be.’
For Colorado native Todd Garrity, the realization that his female anatomy did not match his knowledge that he was a boy struck the day he started kindergarten. His clothes were laid out on his bed: a dress, little-girl tights and patent leather shoes. Garrity had spent his days before that playing He-Man (it was the early ‘80s), and cowboys and robbers, complete with cowboy hat and boots. He cried when he saw the dress.
“I was born in a female body, but my mind is male,” he said. It was not until his 20s, he said, after years of depression and isolation, that he began to meet other transgender people and then to begin the physical and legal process of becoming Todd.
It was the legal process, he says, that was the most “invasive” part of his transition. It took repeated trips to a court in Florida, where he was then living, to get his name changed. Changing his birth certificate was another ordeal. Garrity has a Colorado birth certificate and Colorado law says that transgender people who want to change their sex on their birth certificate must have first undergone gender reassignment surgery. They then must obtain a court order to change the birth certificate, but even then, the birth certificate shows that it has been amended, which some transgender people say “outs” them in employment, banking, housing and other places where that document is required.
Every trip to court, Garrity said, meant standing in an open courtroom and making his request for a change of gender identity public, in front of strangers, which he believed was risky. “This is our legal system, which puts people’s lives in danger for an identity document,” he said.
Next week, the House Judiciary Committee will, for a third time, take up a bill that would make it easier for transgender Coloradans to change their birth certificates without first having to undergo gender reassignment surgery and without having to go to court. It would also remove the label of “amended” from the birth certificate.
Under the proposal, a person could request the change on the birth certificate with the state registrar, which is under the Department of Public Health and Environment. The request would include a written statement from the person seeking the change, or, if a minor, from a parent. It also must include a declaration from a medical professional that the person has either undergone surgery or other treatment for gender transition, or that the professional opinion is that the change is appropriate. The state registrar would then issue a new birth certificate rather than an amended one.
Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, is the bill’s chief sponsor this year, and is one of five LGBTQ members in the House, all who are co-sponsoring the bill, along with the Senate’s two LGBTQ members.
The bill, which is scheduled to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on March 9, comes at a time when transgender people and those who love them are becoming more fearful about what the future holds for transgender people under a Trump administration. Last week, the administration rescinded an Obama executive order requiring schools to allow transgender youth to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity.
The executive order is a “signal of the attitude of this administration about transgender people. Transgender youth are high risk and vulnerable and need protection,” says Daniel Ramos, executive director of OneColorado, the state’s leading advocate for LGBTQ rights.
The bill is expected to pass easily in the Democratic-controlled House and could even pick up a couple of Republican votes, as it did last year, when five Republicans voted in favor of the bill. The Republican-controlled Senate is another matter. For the past two years, the bill died in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on party-line 3-2 vote.
Last year, Republicans and religious conservatives, including Colorado Family Action, a Castle Rock-based group that advocates for traditional religious values, objected to the bill on mostly religious grounds. “Despite government’s and many private groups’ embrace of a new sexual ethic, orthodox religious groups and believers continue to affirm that human beings are created by God male and female, and that marriage is the union of a man and a woman,” Colorado Family Action stated on its website. In addition, then-Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, a Republican of Colorado Springs, claimed the change in law would open up the door to fraud.
Those who work with transgender people believe that the time has come for the law to change and to reflect current science.
Sarah Burgamy, a licensed psychologist who specializes in gender identity development, says the current requirement of gender reassignment surgery isn’t always practical. Sometimes health insurance doesn’t cover the surgery, and it can cost up to $50,000 for female-to-male surgery; about half that for male-to-female, according to the website LiveScience. And surgery isn’t appropriate for minors, Burgamy told The Colorado Independent this week.
But the larger issue, she said is that a person should not have to “amend the body into a form that people understand in order to have a document that reflects who they are.”
Burgamy is seeing an uptick in the number of calls from current patients as well as potential ones. “The anxiety and fear has spiked radically,” she said. Adults are worried about proper identification so that they can move in society freely. For young adults headed to college, the birth certificate is an issue of privacy and some worry about being “outed” as transgender.
It’s more difficult for the children, she said. Parents are asking about the documents they should obtain for their transgender children, some as young as five years old, in case the administration rolls back more than just the executive order.
“Normally we would say to parents that they should wait for the child’s identity to unfold,” she explained. “But that’s hard advice to give to anxious parents.”
Colorado is in some ways a better place for transgender people than other states. In 2008, the General Assembly included transgender in the classes of people protected from discrimination in the state’s anti-discrimination law. In 2013, the state’s Civil Rights Division upheld the right of a six-year old girl from Fountain, Coy Mathis, to use a girl’s bathroom, despite being born male. According to the ruling, research “demonstrates that sex assignments given at birth do not accurately reflect the sex of a child, indicating that birth certificates may no longer constitute conclusive evidence of a child’s sex.” The ruling also declared: “Given the evolving research into the development of transgender persons, compartmentalizing a child as a boy or a girl solely based on their visible anatomy, is a simplistic approach to a difficult and complex issue.”
Steve Wagner of Denver, whose son, Jack, is transgender, pointed to a growing body of scientific studies that say there is a biological basis for transgender identity. In 2016, Scientific American reported on several studies on brain imaging and which found that the brain of a transgender individual was “more similar” to the gender that person identifies with, rather than the birth gender.
Wagner said that it wasn’t until Jack was about 15 that the family began to realize that Jack might be transgender. Wagner and his wife began reading everything they could find on the subject as Jack became aware that, while biologically female, he identified as male. It wasn’t hard to accept, Wagner said. “You don’t quit loving your kid because of how they are.”
Jack, now 19, has not legally changed his name or birth certificate because of Colorado’s current law. Not everyone wants or needs or can even afford surgery to identify who they are, Steve Wagner said. “You shouldn’t have to be cut for a judge to say ‘yes, you’re a man.’”
Wagner said he fears for his son’s future. Jack is taking testosterone, his voice is getting deeper, and he’s growing facial hair, but once Jack graduates from college, if his birth certificate still identifies him as female, that could become an employment issue.
“He’s outed,” Wagner said, and that could lead to Jack being alienated, discriminated against either in employment or job promotion, and even make him a target for violence.
With new leadership in the Senate, OneColorado’s Ramos says he is hopeful that the proposal could end up in a friendlier committee, possibly one that includes some of the Republicans expected to support the measure. Last year, then-Rep. Don Coram of Montrose was one of the five House Republicans to vote yes; he’s now in the Senate. If the bill can reach the Senate floor, Ramos believes it will pass.
Garrity says he has been lucky and hasn’t faced the kind of discrimination that can take place for transgender people who use a birth certificate for jobs, housing, voting, banking and other purposes. Once his birth certificate was changed, he obtained a passport and new driver’s license, and uses those documents exclusively.
“The birth certificate is incredibly important as an affirming document that says you are who you see yourself to be,” Garrity said.
This bill, he argues, while important for all trans people, is particularly important for transgender children.
“It’s so important for us to affirm and support transgender children in their identities,” Garrity said. “I feel that had I been able to live as a boy throughout school, I would have avoided a lot of self-abusive behaviors and come to a place of confidence and happiness” much sooner in life.
Feature photo of Todd Garrity (foreground), courtesy of Todd Garrity.
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