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With new bill, New York City aims to be model for transgender rights

A bill introduced to the New York City Council Wednesday would set a new, easier standard for transgender residents to change their birth certificates.

The New York City Council and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio are vowing to make the city’s gender identification policy “the most progressive policy in the entire country” for transgender residents, officials said on Tuesday.

A bill before the City Council and a separate series of proposed changes to the city’s Board of Health would allow transgender people to change their birth certificates with only a letter of support from a wide range of health workers, including a doctor, psychologist, therapist, physician’s assistant, or even a midwife.

Currently, New York City, one of 57 jurisdictions to issue birth certificates, requires proof of having a sex-change surgery before allowing a person to officially change the gender ID on his or her birth certificate – as do the vast majority of government record keepers.

Several jurisdictions, including New York State (a separate jurisdiction from the city), California, Oregon, Vermont, Washington State and Washington, D.C., have already eliminated the proof-of-surgery requirement. But they still require a transgender person to submit a letter from a licensed medical provider documenting that “appropriate clinical treatment,” such as hormone therapy, is already underway.

New York City will not require clinical treatment.

“It’s going to improve the lives of transgender New Yorkers and allow them to get birth certificates that match their accurate gender,” said Councilman Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, who sponsored the bill introduced Tuesday. “Gender won’t be about your physicality. It won’t be about your body. It’s about how you identify.”

Advocates say that conflicts between state-issued IDs and a person’s gender identity often cause hardship and additional discrimination for transgender individuals.

“A birth certificate is really a living, breathing document – it’s not just a record of birth, but a document that is used on a regular basis to participate in society,” says Arli Christian, policy counsel for the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington.

“A birth certificate is essential to enrolling in school and getting a job and getting other identity documents,” Ms. Christian continues. “So when you have an identity document such as a birth certificate that does not correspond, you are an open target for discrimination, for accusations of fraud, for all sorts of other administrative and logistical problems.”

In 2010, the US State Department eliminated the proof-of-surgery requirement to update passports, and about half of US states have already eased back requirements to change a person’s name and gender markers on driver’s licenses and state IDs.

In January of this year, however, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar measure that would have eliminated the surgical requirement to amend the gender marker on a person’s birth certificate, saying such a change would create opportunities for “fraud, deception and abuse, and should therefore be closely scrutinized and sparingly approved.”

Advocates say that, ideally, jurisdictions would allow transgender people to get new, rather than amended, birth certificates. They also believe this should be done through state and local boards of health and departments of vital statistics, rather than through the courts, a process that can be expensive and intimidating.

“The New York City proposals are trying to get all the right pieces in place, to make this an accessible, approachable policy where transgender people can really move forward and get a document that matches their gender identity,” says Christian.

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