Transcending Gender Lines

E-mail Lis

Ray Carannante wants us to know that “transgender people are not Jerry Springer freaks.” He's a licensed social worker, whose dress is described as tidy — he wears argyle socks and flaunts a neatly styled goatee — and like many men, succumbs to wardrobe suggestions made by his girlfriend. One thing he is not is identity challenged. But, glancing at his birth certificate, you would probably look at Mr. Carannante and do a double take. Looking at this quintessential male who lives in an upscale neighborhood on New York's Upper West Side, you would be surprised to learn that he was actually born a she, and the proof is on the paper.

For Ray to correct the gender on his birth certificate to match his true identity — the one he presents to the public — and the one he's been living with for eight years (male) — requires genital reassignment surgery; a luxury that many in the transgender community cannot afford because of its exorbitant price tag (approximately $100,000). It's estimated that tens of thousands of New Yorkers alone share Ray's plight of living with a gender other than their birth sex. But this is not just a New York issue; the American Psychiatric Association estimates that 1 in 30,000 assigned males and 1 in 100,000 assigned females seek sexual re-assignment surgery. These numbers are starting to make an impact on the public, as gender identity advocates are gaining ground.

Children, as young as kindergarteners, who display signs of gender variance are gaining nationwide support from parents, teachers and mental health professionals. Parents are looking for advice on how to make life reasonable for their children, educators are using gender-neutral words in the classroom and mental health professional are recognizing it as a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a disorder. Doctors are also advising families to let children express themselves and “be who they are,” in an effort to healthy, well-adjusted lifestyles. Even daytime television is starting to broach this controversial topic; Zarf, a male character on the soap opera “All my Children,” began transitioning from male to female in one of shows latest plots. The executive producer inserted the storyline, anticipating the audience's interest in sexuality and gender themes. A consultant from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation speculated that because “emotions are so close to the surface in soap operas, this story can show what transgender people go through.”

The transgender community nationwide is stigmatized and prejudiced every day because people often have a hard time embracing differences. Presenting a birth certificate that registers a different gender than the one we visually see has a massive snowball effect. People need birth certificates to prove work eligibility when starting a new job, to obtain drivers licenses, passports and to apply for many housing programs and social services. Having a birth certificate that shows the “wrong gender” leads to severe discrimination and can make doing any one of those things — even using a public bathroom — difficult or virtually impossible. Providing a document with a gender other than what the public sees, can often lead to accusations of fraud, harassment, humiliation and sometimes may even force him or her to take extreme measures. A 17-year-old woman ran away from work and entered the sex industry to earn money for hormones that she bought on the black market. Arrested for solicitation, she was placed in the juvenile justice system, where they denied her access to the hormones — despite her doctor and parents pleas that she needed them for court.

This week, New York City Health officials stopped short of allowing New Yorkers to switch the sex on their birth certificate without undergoing sex-change surgery. The plan would have made the city the first in the country to invoke this landmark policy. The city's Board of Health proposed the plan in an effort to make it easier for transgender people who had taken steps just short of surgery, such as taken hormones to alter appearances, to switch the sex listed on their birth certificate to match their present gender. Transgender advocates expected the plan to go through and are disappointed at the results. “Some people are physically unable to have the surgery for health reasons,” said Cole Thaler, a transgender rights attorney. “I'm hopeful that time will lead to a more fair result.” And more time seems to be exactly what the City is requesting. “The issue needed further study, in part to guarantee it wouldn't conflict with federal rules now being developed,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden.

However, while the City delayed implementing the birth certificate proposal, the Board of Health did make good on a related policy provision: New York City will now allow people who have undergone sex-change surgery to list their new sex on their birth certificates. As the current policy stands, you need a detailed operative report of sex-changing surgery, a post-operative psych evaluation and a physicians letter to change the gender on a birth certificate. And, after all that, the gender designation is only removed — not corrected. For all official purposes, that person is now genderless in the Big Apple. New York is the only jurisdiction in the U.S. that issues birth certificates to transgender people that eliminate the gender completely. This genderless birth certificate exposes the transgender community to a new type of harassment, especially since it's only this specific niche group who are issued it. We live in a post 9-11 world that demands an ID for virtually move we make. Without an ID, you can't vote, get into airports or even buildings — a genderless certificate hardly eliminates any of these discriminations.

The birth certificate policy, which is tabled for the moment, would right some of these wrongs. It only requires the applicant to have changed their name and prove they've lived in their adopted gender for at least two years in order to alter the gender on a birth certificate. It eliminates the need for sex-reassignment surgery. Dr. Frieden says “surgery versus non-surgery can be arbitrary … somebody with a beard may have breast-implant surgery. It's the permanence of the transition that matters most.” And that's exactly the sentiment the transgender community is relying on.

New York's sizeable transgender community has been requesting this plan for years. The push became even stronger in the years since September 11th in a time of increased security. But not everyone agrees with the proposal. Some psychiatrists and doctors say sexual self-definition should stop at re-writing medical history. Psychiatrist, Dr. Arthur Zitrin, says “they should not change the sex at birth, which is a factual record … If they wanted to change the gender for all the compelling reasons they've given, it should be done perhaps with an asterisk.”

In addition to fighting for gender identity on birth certificates, the transgender community is making other gains in the legal system. In the 2002 lawsuit Jean Doe v. Bell, the court held that it is illegal for New York's foster parents to control the gendered clothing worn by youth in their care. The 2003 lawsuit, Matter of Guido, established that transgender name change applicants couldn't be held to a higher evidentiary standard than non-transgender applicants. The implications of this case make it a little bit easier for transgender people to move through institutions and access employment, public benefits and education. (But remember, this is a band-aid of sorts — since it's still just a name change). On a national level, 31 States and the District of Columbia have hate crime laws that protect people based on sexual orientation. However, of these, only 10 contain laws that include gender identity or expression.

So, here's where we stand as a country on transgender identity. Currently, most states allow transgender people to get new birth certificates with proof that the applicant had the sex-change surgery. Tennessee, Ohio and Idaho do not allow a change of gender on a birth certificate. Even though New York backed off the birth certificate proposal for now, the policy reflects possible change for the future. If New York does pass the bill in future, transgender Manhattanites would officially be the same person on the inside as they are on the outside — at least as far as certification goes. Mr. Carannante jokes that he will be officially male, and perhaps saving for a wedding ring. “It's not easy to go through gender surgery and still afford a ring … and I'm no cheapskate.”


NYC Backs Off Rule Change on Gender

The New York Times article

The New York Times article

Human Rights Campaign

Transgender Glossary of Terms

GLAAD Media Reference Guide, 7th Edition

• Mara Keisling, Executive Director, National Center for Transgender Equality ,1325 Massachusetts Ave., NW Suite 700 Washington, DC 20005, 202-903-0112,,

Make gender a personal choice? Yes

Transgender Death Statistics

New York Plans to Make Gender Personal Choice

NYC Mulls Change In Gender Rules

FAQ for New Transgender Birth Certificate Regulations Proposed in New York City

National Center for Transgender Equality

Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.