Support accurate birth certificates for trans and non-binary people

Content note: suicide, transphobia

I’d wanted to get this done a lot earlier, but we bought a house in the middle of lockdown and that has a tendency to throw every other plan out the window. It’s definitely not perfect and I apologise for anything I’ve missed or messed up on.


The important bit: there’s just one day left to submit on the very concisely named Inquiry into Supplementary Order Paper 59 on the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill.

This SOP would allow people to change the sex/gender marker on their birth certificate without having to go through the current Family Court process.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a really positive step, and of course it’s being dogpiled by transphobes who claim to love women’s rights but really just want to make trans people disappear.

My submission is below. You can also check out the submission from Gender Minorities Aotearoa. And make your own here. As with the conversion practices ban, you don’t have to write a lot. You don’t have to share your darkest traumas. You can simply say you support the GMA submission, and leave it at that, if you want.

Select Committee submissions aren’t an opinion poll – it doesn’t necessarily make a difference if there’s more subs on one side of the issue than the other. But having a broad range of voices and arguments makes it easier for the Committee to consider what needs to change.


13 September 2021

To the Governance and Administration Committee

Submission on the Inquiry into Supplementary Order Paper 59 on the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill

Kia ora koutou

My name is Stephanie Rodgers. I am a feminist, Pākehā, mother and public servant from Wellington, and I write in support of the amendments to the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill.

The status quo hurts people

Although I am cisgender (my gender identity matches the sex I was assigned as birth), I have a personal interest in this legislation. The night I graduated from university with my Honours degree, a friend of mine took his own life. He was a young trans man who struggled hugely with a lack of acceptance from people in his life including his employer, who persistently misgendered him, used the wrong name for him and refused to see him as the man he was.

A few years earlier, his friends at university had put together the money for him to change his name legally, as a birthday present. I think we all cried when he opened the envelope and realised what was inside.

Even at his funeral he was mis-named and mis-gendered by others.

I don’t think this legislation would have been enough, on its own, to save my friend’s life. Not having a birth certificate that reflected who he was, was only one of the obstacles our society put in his way and in the way of many other trans and non-binary people, that prevented him from just being able to live his life as himself. It is in some ways trivial. But it is also hugely significant because it represents who you were from the day you were born. It might have helped. I’ll never know.

Having accurate identity documents is something cis people (people whose gender matches the sex we were assigned at birth) get to take for granted. For people like my friend, it was just another massive straw on the camel’s back.

The Human Right’s Commission’s PRISM report found:

Youth12 data for suicide rates supported [the findings of the Counting Ourselves report], showing 37% of trans participants had attempted suicide at some point; more than twice the rate reported by same or both-sex attracted young people.

Trans, non-binary and intersex people are whānau, but they are made to feel like they cannot be themselves, or will never be accepted by society as themselves, by processes like the current Family Court procedure for updating their own birth certificate.

The current process is onerous and inconsistent

At present, people who want to change the sex on their birth certificate must go through a Family Court process including providing proof of having undergone medical treatment. There are several reasons this is unfair:

  • Many trans and non-binary people do not seek or want to undergo medical treatment. They may not experience the kinds of dysphoria that can be treated or alleviate with surgery or hormonal treatments. This doesn’t change the fact that their birth certificate is inaccurate.
  • If they do seek medical treatment, they may face long waiting times or even a complete inability to access those treatments in Aotearoa New Zealand. Despite increased funding provided in the last term of government, the Ministry of Health’s Gender Affirming Surgery Service reported just last month that there were 295 referrals for a first specialist assessment on their active waiting list, but only five surgeries performed in 2020 and eight in 2021. It is cruel to make people wait to update their documents until they have undergone surgery which at current rates could take decades through our public health service.
  • Finally, this process is inconsistent with the far simpler statutory declaration required to change gender markers on driver licences and passports. Aligning these processes is logical, especially given that birth certificates are potentially the least commonly used of the three.

There are also practical, potentially harmful implications of the current process. Having a driver licence and passport that say one thing, and a birth certificate that says another, presents a risk of a person being outed – revealed as trans or non-binary – against their will. We know that trans and non-binary people are at a serious and real risk of violence when they are outed. The PRISM report released by the Human Rights Commission in 2020 stated:

Multiple comprehensive reviews show that people with a diverse sexual orientation and gender identity experience a higher risk of physical and sexual violence than the general population. In most cases, the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity was a factor in the perpetration of the abuse.

This demonstrates why it can be a matter of personal safety for a person’s documents, including birth certificate, passport and driver’s licence, match who they are and how they present themselves to the world.

Youth, parents and migrants also deserve to be included

Parents

Some trans people do not come out or transition until well into their adult lives, and may have gotten married, or had children, before they felt able to live as their true selves. This can mean they have additional documents such as their child’s birth certificate which reflect inaccurate information about who they are (e.g. listing them as a child’s mother rather than their father.)

The BDMRR Bill already allows for parents to be able to request that their child’s birth record include information relating to their marriage or civil union after child’s birth. It should also allow parents to request that their identifier be changed, e.g. from “mother” to “father”, if that parent has transitioned, come out, or otherwise changed how they identify as a parent. As with a person’s own birth certificate, it is important these things reflect reality, and avoids the risk of someone being outed, if their child’s birth certificate accurately represents their parent’s gender.

It should also allow people to update their marriage or civil union certificates with accurate name and gender information.

Youth

The current wording of the Bill requires applicants aged 15 and younger to have a guardian make the application on their behalf, together with a letter of support from a qualified third person.

Unfortunately, many young trans and non-binary people are not in the care of guardians who are supportive of their true gender identity.

Young people are already able to make many other significant decisions on their own behalf, if they can demonstrate an understanding of the implications and consequences of those decisions, and the law should be consistent here. Amending this process to require support from either a guardian or qualified third person would be fairer.

People with identity documents issued in other countries

The Bill does not allow for overseas-born people to change the sex marker on their existing birth certificate. For many people, it is simply not possible, and could be very dangerous, to return to their country of birth and attempt to get their birth certificate corrected. However, the Bill does allow for the government to issue name change certificates for people whose proof-of-name documentation is from overseas. It seems fair and easy enough to expand this to include the option to issue a document recognising a change of gender or sex marker as well.

Sex and gender are not simple matters

Finally, I am aware many submissions to the Committee will insist that biological sex is a clear-cut binary of male vs female, defined by chromosomes, genitalia or whether a person’s body produces sperm or ova, and that birth certificates represent some kind of definitive evidence, carved in stone, of such matters. These submissions are grounded in ideology, not scientific reality, certainly not in compassion for trans and non-binary people, and I urge the Committee to treat them as such.

As a cis woman, a feminist and a mother, I want to state as strongly as possible that all this Bill does is give people, who experience huge amounts of discrimination and marginalization, the simple dignity of a birth certificate that reflects who they are.

It is not a passport into women’s bathrooms (and I am more concerned about those who want to peer into people’s pants to check what’s there before they pee, than whether the person in the next cubicle is trans). It is not a denial of “biological” reality. We are all wonderfully complex, varied beings and our lives should never be defined or limited by the shape of our genitals or whether we can get pregnant.

Trans and non-binary people have existed in every human culture in history, facing greater or lesser prejudice. We have an opportunity to demonstrate that Aotearoa New Zealand is on the “lesser” end of that spectrum. As a bonus, we will save time and Family Court resources by removing an unnecessary and onerous process from its ambit.

I do not wish to appear before the Committee.

Stephanie Rodgers

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