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Exclusive: Transgender people sue NYC over surgery requirement

By David Edwards
Wednesday, March 23, 2011 8:57 EDT
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Several transgender New Yorkers say the city is making it too difficult to obtain identification that reflects their new genders.

Three transgender people announced Tuesday that they had filed suit against City of New York and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They object to the city’s “arbitrary” requirement that they undergo extensive surgical procedures before agreeing to change the gender designation on their birth certificates.

Sam Berkley, a transgender man, and Joann Prinzivallia and Patricia Harrington, both transgender women, were named as plaintiffs in the suit.

Berkley had undergone hormone therapy and surgery but the city still refused to change his gender designation from female to male because he had not had the specific surgery they require.

“I’ve known since I was 5 years old that I’m male,” he said in a press release. “I’ve undergone medical treatment as part of my transition and the medical documentation I submitted from my doctor should be sufficient to get my birth certificate corrected. Until it’s corrected, I fear that I’ll be subjected to harassment and discrimination whenever I need to present my birth certificate.”

Prinzivalli, the second plaintiff, said she would like to have the surgery the city requires but her doctors had ruled it out for medical reasons.

“This policy is unfair to me and to other transgender people who just want ID that matches who we are,” she said.

“What the plaintiffs are asking here is just that the New York City vital statistics people update and modernize their birth certificate policies,” Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the Nation Center for Transgender Equality, told Raw Story Tuesday. “It’s not a political thing at all.”

She continued: “Most trans people can’t financially afford to have the kind of surgery that’s required, but also a lot of people have a medical contraindication… so the standard that we promote is the standard of having a physician say that based on their medical experience and knowledge, that this person is a male or female. Another standard that other jurisdictions are using is the standard of a court order. So, more and more judges around the country have procedures for getting appropriate medical input so they can issue a court order ordering vital identification documents — like birth certificates and driver’s licenses.”

Right now, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will accept neither the finding of a physician nor a court order as sufficient documentation for changing gender designation.

“A birth certificate is a fundamental form of identification,” Noah Lewis, a staff attorney for Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, said. “By refusing to give transgender people accurate birth certificates that reflect who they are, the city subjects transgender people to harassment and discrimination in areas like employment where ID is essential to proving eligibility to work.”

“Proper ID is essential for full participation in society,” he added. “As long as the City discriminates against transgender people by denying them accurate ID, transgender people will continue to be pushed to the margins of society.”

Lewis told Raw Story that a successful lawsuit would mean that transgender people “can fully participate in society just like everyone else.”

“The vast majority of transgender people do not undergo surgery,” he said. “Eighty percent of transgender women and 95 percent of transgender men do not have the surgery that the health department requires before the’ll change their birth certificate. So, the vast majority of transgender New Yorkers don’t have accurate birth certificates.”

Lewis told the story of one transgender woman in California who tried to change the gender designation on her birth certificate only to have her life threatened by the health department clerk.

“That’s the kind of fear that transgender people have to face when they have documents that don’t match who they are.”

Photo credit: Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund

David Edwards
David Edwards
David Edwards has served as an editor at Raw Story since 2006. His work can also be found at Crooks & Liars, and he's also been published at The BRAD BLOG. He came to Raw Story after working as a network manager for the state of North Carolina and as as engineer developing enterprise resource planning software. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidEdwards.
 
 
 
 
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