That sex and gender are two very different things has long been a truism proclaimed in university classrooms; but it still surprised me to learn that New York’s courts will be allowing people to change the gender on their birth certificates without even having to have a sex change operation.
“Surgery versus nonsurgery can be arbitrary,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner. “Somebody with a beard may have had breast-implant surgery. It’s the permanence of the transition that matters most.”
If approved, the new rule would put New York at the forefront of efforts to redefine gender. A handful of states do not require surgery for such birth certificate changes, but in some of those cases patients are still not allowed to make the change without showing a physiological shift to the opposite gender.
In New York, the proposed change comes after four years of discussion among health officials, an eight-member panel of transgender experts and vital records offices nationwide. It is an outgrowth of the transgender community’s push to recognize that some people may not have money to get a sex-change operation, while others may not feel the need to undergo the procedure and are simply defining themselves as members of the opposite sex. While it may be a radical notion elsewhere, New York City has often tolerated such blurring of the lines of gender identity.
Interestingly however, while surgery is optional, one is required to have undergone a name change!
Applicants would have to have changed their name and shown that they had lived in their adopted gender for at least two years, but there would be no explicit medical requirements.
What’s up with that? It creates additional obstacles, as can be seen by this case where a judge refused to allow Sarah to change his name to Evan. And what about people with gender neutral names? (I see that some groups object to the legislation for this reason.) I looked around, but couldn’t find any explanation for having such a requirement.
The new policy seems in line with a general trend towards allowing people to define their own identity in a more flexible way. In 2001 the census changed its policy, allowing people to identify more than one race. However, I suspect that while switching genders may be come acceptable, identifying yourself as more than one gender will not be. Nobody wants to have to build extra bathrooms…