Stories about Laura Jane Grace -- the transgender singer and frontwoman for the punk rock band Against Me -- setting fire to her own birth certificate during a concert in Durham, N.C., are pretty much everywhere this week.
So too is the fact that Grace did so in protest against North Carolina's so-called bathroom law. Grace said she wanted to voice her opposition to what she considers North Carolina's "ridiculous law," requiring people to use public restrooms which correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificate or run the risk of criminal charges. Grace told reporters she wanted to make a point: Trans people will not live in fear.
And, of course, that's the nature of protest. It sometimes disrupts. It always seeks to draw attention to a cause. But Grace's on-stage birth certificate burning also raises yet another frontier in the trans rights debate, about which many Americans know very little.
Across the country, since at least the 1970s, most states have maintained laws which allow individuals to make changes to their birth certificates. When the laws were passed, trans individuals and their interest in obtaining a birth certificate or other public documents consistent with their gender identity wasn't really part of the conversation, said M. Dru Levasseur, a lawyer and director of Lambda Legal's transgender rights project. Lambda is the nation's oldest and largest legal organization focused on protecting the rights of lesbians, gay men, trans individuals and people living with HIV/AIDS.
However, in the decades since, trans individuals have also used those laws to change -- advocates of the practice often say correct -- the sex listed on a trans person's birth certificate.
Today, state policies on this issue differ a great deal. The District of Columbia, New York City and 10 states -- California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Minnesota -- allow individuals who can provide a notarized doctors note that a person has received the treatment deemed necessary by the individual and their doctor to live their life in a way that is consistent with their gender identity to do so.
That's what trans activists call the "modernized standard," because it does not mandate expensive surgery or hormone treatments that every trans person does not want and some along with their doctors do not feel they need. And, that's also the standard required by the Social Security Administration for Social Security cards, as well as U.S. passports and birth certificates issued to Americans born abroad.
Thirty-seven states currently have a higher standard, though -- requiring people to provide medical proof that they have undergone sex reassignment surgery in order to request an altered birth certificate. North Carolina is part of this latter group.
Three states -- Idaho, Ohio and Tennessee -- do not allow changes to birth certificates at all. Tennessee has a state law explicitly forbidding changes to the sex section of a birth certificate. And, this month, lawmakers in Kansas held a hearing to consider a request from officials in that state's health department that would limit changes to birth certificates to rare situations where, as the Associated Press reported, "a person or his or her parents could document that the gender was incorrectly recorded at the time of birth." Kansas health department officials say they are being asked to make changes to birth certificates that extend beyond the authority granted to them by Kansas's 1970s-era birth certificate law.
(Click here to find a detailed description of document-change requirements in your state, complied by the National Center for Transgender Equity.)
Also this month, a trans-rights group filed suit against the state of Pennsylvania on behalf of two trans individuals who say that the state's rules requiring people who want a birth certificate change to provide proof of surgery violates their rights under the Equal Protection Clause. The suit describes trans status as a "disability."
Both the matter in Kansas and the Pennsylvania suit get at a core dispute between those who support laws like North Carolina's bathroom law and those who do not. Opponents of the law insist that little can truly determined by looking at the genitals of a child when born. Those who support it say that sex is fixed at birth and cannot be altered.
Amnesty International and the European Court of Human Rights have both declared any attempt to prevent transgender individuals changing the sex listed on their official documents a violation of these individuals' human rights. In the United States, a number of gay and trans advocacy organizations say the ability to alter one's birth certificate is key, because it allows trans individuals to decide when and to whom they want to disclose the fact that they are trans.
Without this option, they may be forced to present say a driver's license that bears the legal name and gender identity that they now present to the world but a birth certificate that does not correspond and will raise questions anytime such a person applies for a job, a loan or an apartment. That's part of the reason that the U.S. State Department's policy change in 2010 and Social Security Administration's changes in 2013 were so widely applauded by trans advocacy groups. Of course, not everyone has a passport. In fact, most Americans do not.
Like the bathroom issue, people can and will disagree about the wisdom of altering the public record of one's birth. But, the actual content of that North Carolina bill and those which mimic it make the reasons that some people want to alter their birth certificates pretty plain. Again, that North Carolina law makes a crime of using a public bathroom that does not correspond with the sex listed on one's birth certificate.
That is already creating one notable change. Questions about the process of altering one's identification documents and records have long ranked among the top questions posed to operators answering Lambda's help line, those calls have surged in the weeks since North Carolina's so-called bathroom bill and others like it have been in the news.
In short, policies like North Carolina's bathroom law and those that mimic it in other states are driving more trans people to navigate the process of altering their birth certificate. And that, in turn, is likely to lead to a debate over how easily that can be done.