New York State Improves Policy on Transgender Birth Certificates, Adoptees Fight for Access

By Alex DiBranco, SIECUS Intern

As of June 5, 2014, the state of New York no longer requires transgender people to undergo surgery to obtain a birth certificate that accurately reflects their gender identity.[1] The New York State Department of Health now only requires a medical certification to the effect that the applicant is undergoing appropriate treatment.

The prior policy completely excluded the three-quarters of transgender people who have not undergone transition-related surgical procedures, deterred by factors such as high costs, health risks, and the resultant sterilization. Even for the minority of individuals who had surgically transitioned, extensive documentation requirements prohibited many from obtaining updated birth certificates and posed a severe invasion of privacy.

Nationwide, with over 30 states requiring reassignment surgery to obtain new birth certificates, a mere 6% of transgender individuals without surgery have successfully altered their birth certificates.[2] Even a majority of those who underwent some type of transition surgery either did not bother trying (38%) or were denied (20%).[3] Lacking documents that match an individual’s gender identity can lead to suspicion and harassment.

This policy change comes days after the World Health Organization, in conjunction with United Nations human rights agencies, issued a statement opposing coerced or otherwise involuntary sterilization, specifically identifying abuses against transgender and intersex people. “Some groups, such as transgender and intersex persons, also have a long history of discrimination and abuse related to sterilization, which continues to this day,” the statement reads. “Such violations are reflected, for example, in the various legal and medical requirements, including for sterilization, to which transgender and intersex persons have been subjected in order to obtain birth certificates and other legal documents that match their preferred gender.”[4]

However, there is one part of New York where this policy change will not go into effect: the city of New York. New York city issues its own birth certificates, and its policy continues to require proof of gender reassignment surgery, leading to continued pressure and a lawsuit from local and national transgender rights organizations. A statement from the city health department offered assurances that a similar policy change is under consideration.[5]

Next door in New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed a proposal in January 2014 that would have done away with the state’s gender reassignment surgery requirement, citing concerns about fraud that LGBT activists claim are unsubstantiated.[6] It remains to be seen whether other states will follow New York’s lead.

Meanwhile, adoptees face their own battle for birth certificate rights. As in a majority of U.S. states, New York state law denies adoptees access to their original birth certificates, regardless of the biological parents’ preferences. When adopted children—or their children—face medical problems with hereditary links, this becomes significant, even life-saving, information.[7] Advocates are fighting to pass a bill that would allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates and permit biological parents to file medical or contact information. Similar legislation recently passed in New Jersey and Connecticut, bringing new hope to a campaign that has been underway for two decades.[8]

Opposition stems from concerns about violating biological mothers’ right to privacy, but advocates point out anonymity requirements were only intended to protect adoptive parents from interference by biological parents. One woman advocating for the bill, who gave up a baby for adoption in 1966, complains of being forced to agree to anonymity.[9]

For those biological parents who never want to be contacted, states like New Jersey allow redaction of their names. While not all proponents of the bill favor this compromise, it returns choice to the hands of biological parents, not the state government or adoption agency bureaucracies making decisions for them.


[1]Greenwood, Shannon, “New York State Makes It Easier For Transgender People To Update Their Birth Certificates,” ThinkProgress, June 5, 2014, accessed June 26, 2014, http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2014/06/05/3445333/new-york-transgender-birth-certificates/.

[2]Grant, Jaime, et al., “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011, accessed June 26, 2014,  http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Potts, Andrew, “World Health Organization condemns forced sterilization of trans and intersex people,” Gay Star News, June 2, 2014, accessed June 26, 2014, http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/world-health-organization-condemns-forced-sterilization-trans-and-intersex-people020614#sthash.SHxZS8ud.dpuf.

[5]“New York eases birth certificate gender policy,” Associated Press, June 5, 2014, accessed June 26, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/article/AP5039db6c4b3c4c4eac8c2053bd2c9fe7.html.

[6]Ford, Zack, “Chris Christie Vetoes Bill Allowing Transgender People To Amend Birth Certificates,” ThinkProgress, January 13, 2014, accessed June 26, 2014, http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2014/01/13/3156291/chris-christie-vetoes-transgender-birth-certificate/.

[7]Brennan, Emily, “New York Adoptees Fight for Access to Birth Certificates,” The New York Times, June 15, 2014, accessed June 26, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/16/nyregion/adopted-children-fight-for-access-to-birth-certificates.html?_r=0.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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