“To hold that piece of paper brought tears to my eyes.”
That is how my friend and former ACLU of Michigan colleague Amy Hunter says it felt to finally obtain a birth certificate showing her true gender. A trans woman, Amy was forced to live most of her life with an essential document that didn’t reflect who she really is.
“For as far back as I can remember I’ve always known myself to be Amy,” she says. “But the name William and the male gender marker were on my birth certificate.”
That’s because the director of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services requested an opinion from Attorney General Dana Nessel regarding the constitutionality of requiring transgender people to undergo gender reassignment surgery before their birth certificate could be changed.
When that request was made, we sent the attorney general a letter, signed by nearly every LGBTQ+ organization in the state, arguing that the surgery requirement is unconstitutional because it singles out transgender people for discriminatory treatment — requiring only them to undergo a physically invasive surgical procedure to obtain an accurate birth certificate. Nessel agreed and issued an opinion that the surgery requirement is unconstitutional based on equal protection and due process grounds.
This is a significant step forward because many people who want it can’t afford gender reassignment surgery, which is very expensive and usually not covered by insurance. There are also trans people who don’t feel it is necessary, or simply, for whatever reason, don’t want to go through it.
Now, thankfully, that’s no longer an issue. Because of Nessel’s opinion, the Michigan Department of Vital Records no longer requires proof of surgery to change the gender marker on a birth certificate. The department has issued a new form where a transgender person can self-attest as to their gender with three options to choose from: male, female, and gender non-binary. That means many more transgender people born in Michigan are going to be able to obtain accurate birth certificates, which is pivotal to being able to live their authentic lives in accordance with their gender identity.
“This change is so important because a birth certificate is the base of the pyramid for all of our legal identity documents,” says Hunter. “It forms the basis of so many things.”
She is right about that. Government-issued forms of ID that rely on the information contained in birth certificates are a prime example. Giving a driver’s license when carded at a bar or being pulled over for a traffic violation can become, at the very least, an extremely stressful situation for trans people.
Just as important is the psychological impact.
“Getting my new birth certificate, and seeing that the legal documents going all the way back to my birth finally matched who I always knew myself to be, was a huge emotional moment for me,” explains Hunter. “Without it, a piece of the puzzle was missing. And to have that last piece finally put in place was an incredible feeling. There’s no longer a missing piece.”
But she’s not just happy for herself.
“It brings me great joy to know that everyone in Michigan can now experience that same sense of joy in holding a birth certificate that reflects who they really are without having to first go through surgery,” she says.
This victory was a long time coming. Now that it has been achieved, we should take a moment to celebrate it.