Saturday, January 31, 2009

Changing Sex on a Birth Certificate

Interesting post at Feministe regarding a couple of transgender women who are trying to get their Illinois birth certificates changed. It's fairly absurd that Illinois makes such changes contingent on particular surgical regimen. At the same time there are several arguments making the change at all.

The other documents referenced in the post (passport, drivers' licenses, social security cards) are intended to reflect reality as it currently exists, but the birth certificate is a historical document. Contrary to the assertion that Kirk makes in the article the birth certificate doesn't say that she is male. Rather, it says that she was of male sex (not gender) the time of birth; it really doesn't seem possible to argue to the contrary.

What's more interesting is why the plaintiffs see the need to change their birth certificates in the first place? Ms. Kirk is quoted as follows

"It could create significant problems for me in the future," Kirk said Tuesday at a news conference. "A document that says I am male puts me at risk of embarrassment, harassment and possibly even physical violence."
It's hard to evaluate those claims; how would you go about determining whether she faces a substantially increased risk of harassment or physical violence on account of her birth certificate? Even if we take that as a given does it justify altering the historical record?

Additionally I think there's a good, progressive case to be made that these women shouldn't be trying to change their birth certificates. It seems similar, in many respects, to arguments in favor of women going public with their abortion experiences. If women can increase acceptance of abortion by sharing publicly sharing their stories then cannot these women further the cause of transgender rights in a similar fashion? The desire to change their birth certificates runs contrary to the notion that gender is a mutable continuum. I'd even go so far as to say that it plays into the hands of the powers-that-be; if I were the Ministry of Truth what better way to deny the existence of transgender individuals than to go all the way back to the beginning and change their birth certificates?

Ultimately the truth is that they were born male and are now female. To deny that is, in a non-trivial way, to deny the reality of their own lives.

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