DENVER — “Like many of you, I never met a transgender person, until I met my daughter,” said Ben Taylor, an Australian with wiry hair and a thick accent, speaking on Wednesday to members of the Colorado Senate State Affairs Committee.
“My daughter was born a boy, but she would tell anyone she was a girl from the time she was very young,” he said. “Colorado is a modern enlightened state. That’s why I moved here. We can update the birth document system, and we should.”
Taylor was one of the crowd of transgender witnesses and their family members who had packed a small hearing room at the Capitol in support of the Birth Certificate Modernization Act, House Bill 1265, sponsored by Democrats Dominick Moreno, a representative from Commerce City, and Jessie Ulibarri, a senator from Westminster. The bill aimed to streamline and update the process through which transgender Coloradans could alter the gender listed on their certificates.
The bill was killed by the Republican-controlled committee, as expected, after three hours of emotional testimony. Roughly a dozen witnesses testified in support of the bill. Only two testified against it, including Mike Norton, a high-profile conservative-politics lawyer from the Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF, as it is known, is the multi-million-dollar Arizona-based organization that has made headlines in recent years arguing against nondiscrimination laws in defense of religious freedom.
Norton’s presence at the hearing signaled that the group had been working to oppose the birth certificate bill as part of larger lobbying efforts to push back against what he referred to in testimony as “the rush among members of the General Assembly to satisfy the insatiable demands of the LGBT community.”
ADF has worked for a decade to advance and defend anti-sodomy laws that criminalize gay sex in the United States and overseas. Gay rights groups flag ADF as virulently anti-gay.
Last week, ADF testified against a bill that would have banned gay youth conversion therapy in Colorado. That bill would have barred therapists from trying to change either the sexual orientation or the gender identity of Colorado kids — a practice discouraged by medical professionals as nonscientific and harmful. The bill was killed by the same State Affairs committee that killed the birth certificate bill.
A clunky process
As the law now stands in Colorado, residents seeking to alter the gender on a birth certificate have to undergo sex-reassignment surgery and bring a note from their doctors to a judge, who then issues a court order to a registrar. It’s a process that takes at least a year and ends in an amended document that records the gender as altered.
As witnesses testified, the process is outdated as well as clunky and humiliating. They said many people don’t want or need to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Others said their insurance doesn’t cover the procedure. Parents said their transgender children were too young and that the idea of the state forcing them into surgery was dangerous and inappropriate.
“As a child, her birth certificate is her only form of identification,” said Taylor, talking about his daughter. “She’ll use it in the future to get a job, to receive medical care, to get a passport to travel. It’s one of the most important documents you own.”
Todd Geraghty said his transition into life as a man was harrowing and marked by frustration. He described bullying and depression. He said he tried to commit suicide at 8 years old.
“The transition doesn’t happen overnight and, as it turns out, one of the most challenging parts is to get your documents right,” he said.
He told the committee members that he knew the topic they were considering was probably unfamiliar and confusing.
“I didn’t come here to ask you to understand what it’s like being transgender. I just ask that you try to understand the challenges we face.”
Complicit in fraud
When it was Norton’s turn to testify, he explained that he was representing a group called Colorado Family Action, one of 38 family groups across the nation tied to Colorado Springs-based evangelical empire Focus on the Family.
He brought copies of his five-page testimony for the committee members and gave an abbreviated verbal version from the witness table.
His remarks contrasted with the testimony that came before and after. They were based largely in hypotheticals.
“The testimony here today doesn’t justify a wholesale change to the law,” he said. “The members of the General Assembly [may] make it more likely that [the people of Colorado] will be subject to fraudulent activity.”
He referred to an estate case in Texas in which Thomas Araguz claimed to have never been told that his wife had been born a boy. After Araguz died, his mother sued to have the marriage declared void. The case is ongoing.
“It is not just fraudulent inducements to marry that may be more likely to occur,” he explained.
“A student who believes he will not qualify for an athletic scholarship as a male might seek to change his sex designation to female in order to gain a competitive advantage,” is how Norton put it in his written remarks. “Male students seeking admission to academic programs that favor female applicants because women have been historically under-represented might likewise seek to change their sex designations….”
Norton offered no evidence to suggest such frauds could be expected to occur in any significant number.
People in the room looked around at each other with open mouths and wrinkled foreheads as he was speaking.
None of the lawmakers gave the written version of Norton’s testimony more than a cursory look. A small pile of stapled copies sat on the witness table untouched after the hearing concluded.
In his closing remarks, bill sponsor Ulibarri asked the committee members to consider the many Coloradans not in the room who were being represented by the transgender people and their supporters who had attended the hearing.
“You might say, ‘I don’t know any transgender Coloradans.’ Well, you can’t say that anymore. They live in every corner of the state. Many live in your districts.”
Committee Chair Ray Scott, a Republican from Grand Junction, said nothing to explain how he planned to vote. He voted against the bill.
Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, said he was struggling to understand. “Should we eliminate gender identification on IDs altogether?” He voted against the bill.
Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he was trying to understand the challenges faced by the witnesses in the room, as Geraghty had asked him to do. He said he thought the way to move forward on tough social issues like this one was “relational,” meaning through relationships, person to person.
“I worry about asking the law to adopt human qualities,” he said. “The law has to be equal for all.”
He voted against the bill, too.
Democratic Senator Matt Jones from Louisville was the last committee member to speak before the vote. He knew what was coming.
“Polling shows that public speaking is among the most nerve-wracking things we do, but especially in this case, telling your personal stories … difficult stories, I want to thank you all for coming.
“This is a hard situation,” he continued, looking from face to face in the room. “We shouldn’t make it any harder today. Let’s give these people a break and let them get on with pursuing their own American dreams.”
A ten-year-old transgender boy named Enrico sat by the door. He looked around, his eyes wide behind wire-rim glasses. He had been listening on and off throughout the hearing. He blushed when his mom mentioned him during testimony, spurring all eyes in the room to fall on him at once.
When it became clear that the bill was dead, the room went quiet, and Enrico started to cry. His mom hugged him. People knelt down and put their hands on his shoulders.
“It is going to get better,” said one of them. “Don’t worry. Don’t worry.”
Kids and tutu photo by Tara Faul.