Transgender Group Takes NYC to Court Over Birth Certificates

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Tuesday March 22, 2011

A transgender rights group has filed a lawsuit that challenges the city's requirement that trans New Yorkers must undergo sex-reassignment surgery before they can obtain an amended birth certificate.

The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund announced the suit on behalf of Joann Prinzivalli, Sam Berkley and Patricia Harrington at a press conference in lower Manhattan on Tuesday, March 22. TLDEF lawyer Noah Lewis said each plaintiff had submitted the appropriate medical documentation that indicated the sex-designation on his or her birth certificates was incorrect. The New York-based organization further alleges city officials refused to issue Prinvizalli, Berkley and Harrington amended documents because they had not undergone surgery.

"The vast majority of trans people don't have surgery," he said. "Therefore, the majority of [trans] people have incorrect documentation."

Prinzivalli, who was born in Brooklyn, said the regulation adversely affects her and other trans New Yorkers. She told EDGE a Department of Motor Vehicles employee began to call her "sir" after she provided a copy of her original birth certificate when she tried to apply for an enhanced driver's license. "Her attitude completely changed," recalled Prinzivalli. "People all of a sudden say you're a fake-and I'm not a fake."

Berkley, who was also born in Brooklyn, legally changed his name last year after he transitioned. He has changed the sex on his driver's license, but Berkley said he would like the city to allow him to do the same with his birth certificate.

"I don't feel comfortable with the government deciding whether I'm a man or not," he said. "I've transitioned, and I just want to move on with my life."

The state of New York requires trans New Yorkers to undergo surgery to amend their birth certificates, but the city issues its own documents. The federal government, however, does not require a trans person to undergo surgery in order to change the gender on their passport after the State Department amended the policy last June. A trans person who was planning to undergo surgery could have received a temporary passport for one year.

TLDEF unveiled the lawsuit roughly six weeks after a National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force-sponsored survey found trans Americans continue to suffer disproportionate discrimination in housing, law enforcement, public accommodations and in the workplace, the health care and education systems.

"We are very sympathetic to the petitioners' concerns and recognize that this is a complex issue," said city lawyer Gabriel Taussig in a statement sent to EDGE. "The Health Department must be satisfied that an applicant has completely and permanently transitioned to the acquired gender prior to the issuance of a new birth certificate."

Lewis reaffirmed the policy subjects trans New Yorkers to additional discrimination. "Trans people are pushed to the margins when they are denied proof of who they are," he said.

Prinzivalli agreed.

"We're not asking for changes," she said. "We're asking for a correction."

Kilian Melloy contributed to this article.

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.