Making it easier for transgender people to get new birth certificates

Kaprice Williams, 50, transitioned from male to female when she was 15, but some legal documents still do not recognize her as a woman.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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WASHINGTON — Kaprice Williams has been waiting four years for a new birth certificate.

Williams, 50, transitioned from male to female when she was 15, but some essential legal documents still do not recognize her as a woman.

That had not been an issue until a job interview went sour when her paperwork revealed she is transgender. Efforts to change her birth certificate had stalled because Williams, a native of Washington, has not had sexual reassignment surgery and cannot afford thousands of dollars in lawyer’s fees.

Those obstacles are about to become history: Last month, the District of Columbia Council passed the country’s most liberal policy for updating birth certificates, one that transgender activists hope will become a nationwide model. The mayor is expected to sign it Tuesday.


Activists say the tremendous boost to gay marriage provided by the Supreme Court’s rulings in June ultimately will benefit everyone in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. This, they say, is the time to focus on the needs of transgender people, who are seen as the most vulnerable of the four groups.

“Now we have momentum at our back, and we really need to use this time effectively to gain as many protections as possible for transgender people,” said Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based LGBT rights organization.

The Washington measure eliminates requirements for surgery and a court order that, transgender rights attorney Lisa Mottet said, make it too expensive and inaccessible for most transgender people to complete a legal transition.

Williams said she could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

“I’m glad to finally get this so I can move on with the rest of my life,” she said. “These are basic needs, and you can’t do too much without proper credentials.”

Nationwide, only 24% of transgender people can get the gender changed on their birth certificates because of restrictive laws, according to a study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, where Mottet works. This can create problems when they enroll in schools or apply for jobs, she said.

Washington’s new policy “means that people can go about their lives and have their gender recognized, instead of having government documents that say you’re not who you say you are,” said Mottet, who was an advisor on the measure’s language.


Washington will grant new birth certificates to transgender people who provide a statement from a licensed healthcare provider that they have undergone “appropriate treatment” for a gender transition. The measure, which passed unanimously, also exempts them from a requirement to advertise a concurrent name change for three weeks in a newspaper.

The legislation makes it easier and more private for transgender people to align their legal documents with their gender identity, said Andy Bowen, an organizer with the advocacy group D.C. Trans Coalition. Bowen also met with members of the District of Columbia Council to advise on the measure.

Previously, updated birth certificates were granted only to those who had undergone sexual reassignment surgery, which Bowen says is unaffordable for most transgender people. Even then, the birth certificate was merely amended rather than reissued.

“Anyone who saw your birth certificate would see that you were transitioned, so there was a risk of outing,” Bowen said. Under the new policy, she said, the process becomes purely administrative.

Mottet said most states still made it difficult. Of the 47 states that allow a gender change on birth certificates, only four have dropped the surgical transition standard, she said. About half issue a new birth certificate and half amend the old one.

California is poised to follow Washington, said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco.


In 2011, the state reduced its standard for securing a court order to a physician’s statement that the individual had received appropriate treatment.

Now, Assemblywoman Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) is sponsoring a bill similar to Washington’s. Her office expects passage by the end of the year.

“Transgender people are entitled to have their official documents and their legal name reflect their true identity without a burdensome and expensive process that endangers their personal safety,” Atkins said in a statement.

Mottet sees Washington’s law as the start of a national movement.

“We’re at the very beginning of a snowball starting to be created here,” she said.