"The gender-change process that was used in many states for identity documents was established in the 1970s, and our understanding of who trans people are ... has evolved over time," said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center. "What you see happening today is a reflection of that reality."
Meanwhile, acquiring a new birth certificate still requires proof of surgery in all but three states: Washington, California and Vermont, according to research by Lisa Mottet, director of the Transgender Rights Project at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Twenty-four states amend existing birth certificates instead of issuing new ones, a practice that advocates say violates the privacy of transgender people who could be "outed" when they need to show documents that still reflect their biological gender. Another three states, Idaho, Tennessee and Ohio, will not change the gender on a birth certificate under any circumstances.
In California, which in 1977 became the first state to allow transsexuals to secure new birth certificates once they had undergone surgery, streamlining the procedures has been a multi-year endeavor. Supporters persuaded the Legislature in 2011 to eliminate the surgery requirement. This year, they are trying to create an administrative process that would allow a new birth certificate to be issued without a court order or legal notice in a local newspaper.
Assemblyman Don Wagner voted against both bills, along with many of his fellow Republicans. Wagner says that although he empathizes with people who find the system cumbersome or cost-prohibitive, he is concerned that eliminating long-standing hurdles creates opportunities for identity fraud.
"There should be substantial evidence to make the change, and I feel these bills perhaps lessen that standard," he said.
Mottet thinks that worries about identity fraud are unwarranted.
"There is no financial incentive or social incentive to have on your documents a gender that doesn't match who you are. If John Johnson has a criminal record, it doesn't help him to have a driver's license or birth certificate listing him as female," she said.
Ben Hudson, the director of a Sacramento health clinic that provides treatment vertification for transgender people seeking to update their IDs, said a bigger problem is transgender people receiving outdated instructions from employees charged with processing their paperwork. Just last week, he heard from a client who had gone to the local Social Security office to apply for a card showing her new name. The clerk told her — wrongly — that she needed proof of surgery.
"She had the gumption to ask for a manger. But can you imagine how it adds to your anxiety and depression to be turned away after you worked up the nerve to go into that office and tell your story?" Hudson said. "A lot of transgender people are going to want to just tuck tail and run."