Transgender New Yorkers File Lawsuit Against City for Refusing to Correct Birth Certificates

The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund has filed a lawsuit against New York City regulations that mandate transgender men and women to undergo specific surgery before they can correct the sex on their birth certificates.

The case is brought forward on behalf of three plaintiffs and calls the surgical requirement arbitrary, saying that it subjects transgender people to harassment, discrimination, and humiliation.

Each plaintiff is unable to obtain a corrected birth certificate on the basis that they did not go through a specific surgical procedure, despite having provided extensive medical documentation of their actual sex. The overwhelming majority of transgender men and women have not undergone the extensive surgery required by the city’s rule, often for medical or financial reasons. But they are not exempt from the city’s one-size-fits-all standard that has not been updated in 40 years.

“I’ve known since I was 5 years old that I’m male,” points out Sam Berkley, one of the plaintiffs. “I’ve undergone medical treatment as part of my transition, and the medical documentation I submitted from my doctor should be sufficient to get my birth certificate corrected.” He has already gone through surgery as part of his transition, but not the specific procedure required by the city. Sam told NBC that he has problems applying for health insurance or other services because he doesn’t know how people will react to the inconsistency between his actual sex and what is listed on his certificate.

Doctors have ruled out the possibility of surgery for another plaintiff, Joann Prinzivalli, due to medical issues that the New York Times reports make her susceptible to blood clots that could cause a stroke or heart attack. As a result, it is impossible for her to correct her certificate. “This policy is unfair to me and to other transgender people who just want ID that matches who we are,” she says. “I am a woman. My birth certificate was incorrect when it was filled out, and it is still incorrect today.” A third complaint is currently also being filed on behalf of Patricia Harrington. The New York Daily News notes that in another instance, the city asked 70-year-old Louis Lenoard Birney for a detailed post-operative surgery report, a psychiatric evaluation, a surgical operative record, and a post-operative examination signed by a doctor after his transition.

Attorney Noah Lewis says these requirements are excessive. “No laws have to be changed,” he says. “All the city has to do is treat transgender people like everyone else and go by the medical documents they provide.” He told the Advocate that another problem is the lack of transparency about what the requirements actually are for transgender women and men, whereas other birth certificate applicants receive clear guidelines. The lawsuits have received additional media coverage thus far by various sources such as the Associated Press, New York Magazine, and the blog Just Out.

But not all the coverage was stellar. New York Times reporter John Eligon wrote about the case and in an otherwise very thorough and well-reported story, he also sought out a quote from noted anti-LGBT activist Peter Sprigg, from the Family Research Council.

Peter Sprigg has a long history of anti-gay and anti-transgender statements, and was accused by the Southern Poverty Law Center of “push(ing) false accusations” about the LGBT community. Eligon also included comments from the Public Health Department, representing the real “other side” of this story.

By seeking out Sprigg for a quote (rather than unbiased medical or legal experts, for example) the New York Times turned the focus of this story from a question of law, to a divisive social issue, and this was very disappointing. Thankfully, the Times seems to be the outlier here - as most of the other coverage has focused squarely on the experiences of the plaintiffs, the importance of this lawsuit, and the legal questions at hand.

GLAAD is proud to have worked with Sam, Joann, Patricia, attorney Noah Lewis, and other TLDEF staff before the release of this lawsuit in order to ensure that the plaintiffs’ messages and stories are promoted in a fair and accurate way. We will continue monitoring media coverage and updates on this case.