March 30, 2016 News » Cover Story

Trans people want to change the gender on their birth certificates 

In 2008, Sheri Proctor was driving home to Boulder from Montana, having just finished visiting with her youngest daughter, who was away at college.

After a few hours, Proctor pulled over at a rest stop for a quick nap. When she woke up about an hour later, her bladder was strained from the soda she drank earlier, so she got out of the car to walk to the women's restroom.

She was almost at the door when six pickup trucks, each with a rifle rack, pulled up. Nervous, Proctor decided to stall. She lingered outside the restroom doing jumping jacks and stretching, pretending not to notice as six men exited the trucks, used the men's restroom and walked back to their vehicles. When it looked like they were leaving, she decided it was safe to duck into the empty women's restroom.

But when she came back out, the six men, pistols on their hips, were waiting for her, along with a sheriff's deputy.

"I've never been so scared in my entire life," Proctor remembers.

Back then, Proctor only dressed as a woman about half the time, and it was fairly easy to tell that she was transgender. Even now, she says, most people can probably tell. She's almost 6 feet tall with broad shoulders, and her voice, she notes, isn't Stepford Wives squeaky.

In other words, standing there, frozen in place, she knew exactly why these men were confronting her.

She recalls that the deputy was busy talking into his radio trying to figure out what crime to charge her with. Over the radio she heard a man say, "It's up to you — if it's a man, arrest him, if it's a girl, let her go."

The deputy's eyes lowered to Proctor's surgically enhanced chest. It was one of those moments, she says now, when she wished her driver's license didn't still say "Donald" and list her as a male.

Most of us probably don't spend a lot of time thinking about our documentation, but for transgender people, their quality of life — even their physical safety — may very well depend on what their driver's license, Social Security card, passport and birth certificate say about them.

In Colorado, the 2016 Birth Certificate Modernization Act (House Bill 1185) would have allowed trans people with a Colorado birth certificate to change the gender on the document without undergoing surgery and without going through lengthy court proceedings. The document would not have been marked as amended. Current law is not so easy to navigate, requiring that trans people undergo some sort of sexual reassignment surgery, get a court order for a name change on their birth certificate, get a legal name change, and file forms and documents with the state before receiving a birth certificate marked as amended.

HB1185 passed the Democrat-controlled House, with five Republicans joining Democrats in supporting it. But it was killed by Republicans on the State Veterans & Military Affairs Committee in the Republican-controlled Senate. A similar bill died last year in a Senate committee after being opposed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a multi-million dollar Christian foundation based in Arizona. The group sent a representative to the House hearings to oppose the bill again this year, though, interestingly, no testimony in opposition to HB1185 was given in the Senate committee this session before it nixed the bill.

Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs, sits on the House Health, Insurance & Environment committee, which approved HB 1185. He voted against the bill.

Klingenschmitt, a former Navy chaplain, says he believes transgender people are suffering from mental illness that eventually leads them to self-harm and suicide. He believes the government should not play into their "confusion" by allowing them to change a birth certificate, when nothing will change their DNA. What's more, he says, if a law like HB1185 ever passes, police will not be allowed to remove a transgender woman who has not had sexual reassignment surgery from a women's bathroom or locker room, meaning that women and girls might be able to see the trans woman's genitalia.

"Moms and little girls should not have to worry about sharing restrooms with a cross-dressing man who pretends to be a woman," he says.

Klingenschmitt adds, "I pray for the sake of the little girls and the confused people themselves that this never passes."

On a national scale, however, HB1185 was not all that groundbreaking. The majority of states, including Colorado, do not require surgery or major hoop-jumping to change gender on driver's licenses. Colorado allows a gender change on driver's licenses with documentation from certain licensed health professionals. No surgery is required.

Another nine states will change birth certificates without surgery or court order.

Similarly, the federal government only requires certification from a health care provider confirming that a trans person has undergone appropriate clinical treatment before changing the gender on a passport or with the Social Security Administration.

Jessie Lee Ann McGrath, 54, says the problem with the current law isn't just that it discriminates against trans people, but also that it favors the wealthy and healthy. McGrath is transgender, a long-time deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County, and a lifelong Republican who comes from an active Colorado Republican family. Hank Brown, the former Republican U.S. senator from Colorado and former president of the University of Colorado system, was a family friend when she was growing up. As a youth, McGrath did an internship in Washington, D.C., for Republican Bill Armstrong, a former U.S. senator and representative from Colorado.

"I think part of my mission in life is to let the Republicans know, 'Guys, it's not just the Democrats that are transgender; it's Republicans too and you've got to stop picking on us," McGrath says.

McGrath says that transitioning was fairly simple for her because she is in good health, makes good money and is an attorney. She easily changed her name, driver's license, passport and Social Security card. Even under Colorado's strict laws, McGrath was able to update her Colorado birth certificate following facial and breast surgery. Notably, she says, she has not changed what is between her legs at this point, and she explains that Colorado's law doesn't require that specifically for a birth certificate change.

"If you have money, you can basically [get your documents changed]," she says. "I mean, in less than a year, I have basically changed everything."

But it's different for others, she says. Some people aren't in good enough health to have surgery. Their doctors simply won't approve it. Others would prefer not to have "bottom surgery" because it can require a lifetime of maintenance. And there are those who simply can't afford surgery or court proceedings.

What happens to them, she asks? Among her friends, she says, she knows of one trans woman who was offered a job, then had it rescinded when she had to present her documents.

"At times," McGrath says, "I feel absolutely embarrassed that I have not had to go through the suffering that most of the trans people have had to go through."

click to enlarge Shari Zabel met with challenges. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Shari Zabel met with challenges.

While it may not seem that a birth certificate is that important in everyday life, trans people and their loved ones say it comes up more often than you might think.

Shari Zabel, a retired Air Force major and current Democratic candidate for House District 16, testified in favor of the Modernization Act this year and last year. Zabel says when she transitioned three years ago, her documents caused some awkward moments.

She can remember shopping at the commissary and presenting her military ID only to be told by the clerk, "We need your ID, not your husband's." Those uncomfortable moments, she says, would have been much worse had she still been active duty and needed security clearance. You do need a birth certificate for clearance, she explained — and having documents that don't match would create an impediment.

"Especially right here in Colorado," she says, "that happens all the time."

Another woman, Jenna, who wanted to protect her children by not using her last name, says her 9-year-old trans daughter hasn't had many problems yet. The family lives in Erie, where the girl is accepted and embraced by her classmates. But Jenna wonders about kids who might be trying to "pass" in their schools. Those kids, she says, can't get their birth certificate changed under current state law until they can have surgery. But a person must be 18 to consent to surgery.

Jenna says a friend of hers has a trans child who won't get a driver's license, because the ID would initially list the wrong gender before it could be updated. And if the law doesn't change, her own daughter will face the same challenge in the future.

"It doesn't all sync up," she says. "It's embarrassing for the children, I think, and for everyone."

Sheri Proctor hears a lot of these stories in her current job. A former chef, she's now the president of the Gender Identity Center in Colorado. It's not always the most uplifting work. She recently visited a trans woman in the hospital who attempted suicide after being misgendered, and she's been trying to help a family who won't let their elementary-school-age trans son play soccer because providing the proper paperwork would force them to "out" him to friends' families.

"Right now, nobody in the world knows he was born a girl, and nobody needs to," Proctor says.

Proctor says the boy burst out in tears last year when the Senate committee killed a version of the Modernization Act.

Proctor grew up Mormon, pretending most of her life to be the manliest of men. She married and had seven children before eventually coming out. She says she still doesn't have all her documents changed, and it doesn't really bother her, but she knows how much it hurts many of her trans friends and impacts their lives. She says she's especially moved by the plight of trans children.

"That's probably why I'm such an activist," she says. "It allows me to help and assist in making things better for these kids coming up. It makes it so they don't have to go through some of the issues and some of the things that I did."

By the way, Proctor did finally make it out of that Montana rest stop, though it was a close call. One of the men pulled a gun on her. She got called "every name in the book." But the deputy, she says, took a long, hard look at her before remarking, "With those tits, this is a woman."

He let her get back in her car, then followed her through the edge of the county, and then the next county, before stopping at the state line and letting her continue on her way home.

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