DENVER — Colorado lawmakers considering civil unions, gay marriage and religious freedom have been riding a steep learning curve over the last few years on matters related to gender and sexual orientation and varying kinds of queerness.
The trip has been easier for some than it has for others. Beginning last week and for at least a couple of weeks to come, lawmakers will be considering the first-ever bill about transgender issues introduced at the Capitol. Many in the transgender and intersex communities are celebrating the bill as a milestone in raising awareness about their lives and the unique hurdles they face.
A House legislative committee, last Thursday, passed the Birth Certificate Modernization Act, or House Bill 1265, sponsored by Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City. The bill aims to streamline and update the process by which transgender Coloradans can alter the gender listed on their certificates to reflect who they are in the world and not how they looked when they were born.
“We’ve been doing a lot of outreach — a lot of education,” said Sheri Proctor, president of the Gender Identity Center of Colorado. She took her time drawing out the word “education” for emphasis.
“We’re saying that this concerns a lot of people, that we’re real people and that we have real issues we need them to address.”
Unwieldy and Out of Touch with Reality
As the law stands, Coloradans who wish to change the gender on their birth certificates have to undergo sex reassignment surgery; then ask their doctor to write a note to a judge attesting to the surgery; then ask the judge to hand down a court order so that a registrar can issue the altered birth certificate.
This clunky process takes at least a year. In the end, the birth certificate is merely amended – for all the world to see – noting a gender change has been requested and accepted by the state.
This process fails to account for the contemporary complexity of gender.
For one, many transgender people don’t wish to undergo sex reassignment surgery. They are fine with their genitals, just not with their gender.
The current law also fails to consider the state’s intersex population — people born with bodies that don’t fit typical definitions of male or female.
Nor does the amended document Colorado now offers meet the needs of many looking to update their birth certificates. For these Coloradans, the main point is to marry their paperwork-selves with their real-selves in order to be done with a bureaucratic mismatch that has hung over their lives. An amended birth certificate does not do that. It “outs” a person every time someone takes a look at it — which can be not just embarrassing, uncomfortable and enormously frustrating, but sometimes dangerous.
“Look, I own a business,” explains Proctor. “If I see a document has been amended, I want to know why. I want to know all about why. You suspect something is not right about it… We don’t need that kind of scrutiny. We’re trying to move beyond that.”
The proposed Birth Certificate Modernization Act would require only a note from a health professional saying the person requesting the updated birth certificate was undergoing relevant treatment or didn’t need it but that the update was appropriate.
Political versus Practical
Angela Palermo, a University of Colorado librarian and volunteer researcher at The Colorado Independent, transitioned more than a decade ago. She tells lively gallows-humor accounts of the bureaucratic hoops she and so many have had to jump through just to match their official identity to the one they walk around in every day.
She said lawmakers should resist looking at this issue as political or cultural. It’s a practical and psychological issue, rather, because you use your birth certificate to get a driver’s license, to vote, to open a bank account, to get married and to get a passport to travel. She said the bill is about mending the bureaucratic fabric that stretches across major stages of life.
The bill, should it become law, will improve lives immediately, and with no real-world downside, she said.
“Everyone knows, paperwork has to be in order or there’s just trouble. Having your birth certificate [gender] match the gender you are in your head, I mean, that will just smooth a person’s path in life.”
Palermo describes the unsettling, absurd feeling that the state was needlessly obsessed with her genitalia.
“We had to ask for a provisional passport that noted we were getting surgery. Then we would bring back a doctors note and submit it, and it would say, you know, ‘such and such reassignment has been performed,’ laying it all out there… It just felt so controlling. I mean, we did it, we girls who felt we had to, because it was just the hoops we had to jump through, but when you think about it, it really is kind of weird. Like, ‘Why does this even matter?’ Why the deep concern with what’s in my pants?”
A Klingenschmitt Assist
Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, a member of the committee that passed the bill last week, voted against it. He suggested it would expose children to abuse and could foster fraud. He floated scenarios in which people altered their certificates in order to dupe would-be spouses or to try to falsely lay claim to inheritances.
Klingenschmitt, an internet evangelical preacher and former military chaplain, has been making headlines and was disciplined by leaders at the Capitol this week for saying a demonic spirit was behind a macabre attack on a pregnant Longmont woman whose fetus was carved out of her womb. He quoted scripture to suggest the attack was tied to sinful U.S. culture.
Proctor said she actually appreciated Klingenschmitt’s “craziest slippery-slope theories” about the bill. She said she thought it helped advocates educate the committee.
“He was a perfect gentleman — and also utterly stupid about the bill. I think it embarrassed his fellow Republicans. I think they were looking at him and seeing, even there in the committee room, what we have to deal with sometimes and why we need this bill to pass,” she said.
Proctor pointed out that Fountain Republican Lois Landgraf signaled at one point that she planned to vote against the bill but that by the end of the hearing she had changed her mind, citing conservative values prizing small government and individual liberty.
“To me, that’s what’s powerful,” said Proctor. “The way she came to see that the bill just makes sense because it will make our lives easier.”
HB 1265 moves next to the Democratic-controlled House floor for debate and then likely sometime this month to the Republican-controlled Senate.
Edit note: The original version of this story used the term “genital reassignment surgery.” The preferred term is “sex reassignment surgery.” The story has been updated to include the preferred term.
Baby photo by Prabhu B Doss.