As Republican lawmakers nationwide have mobilized to restrict LGBTQ rights, Oklahoma’s GOP governor this week staked out new territory in the growing culture war: birth certificates.
It’s the latest restriction on gender identity in the state, after Stitt in November issued an executive order to prohibit trans residents from changing the gender on their birth certificates, which are also used to secure other forms of identification.
Republican backers describe the new rules as reflecting their religious beliefs, arguing that gender is binary and immutable. “I believe that people are created by God to be male or female,” Stitt said when he issued the executive order. “There is no such thing as nonbinary sex.”
The new rules have raised alarm among advocates, though, who say they represent a government attack on personal identity and create barriers to employment and housing. Transgender people in Oklahoma say it’s difficult to navigate life with documents that don’t match their gender identity.
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“My Social Security card and my birth certificate don’t match. I am looking for a job now. It brings up a lot of questions,” said Rowan Fowler, 47, who obtained a court order last year in Oklahoma to change her birth certificate from male to female but has been blocked by Stitt’s order. “What genitalia I was born with is no one’s business but mine and my doctor at this point. These are embarrassing questions that no one should have to answer.”
Bills to ban changes to gender markers on birth certificates have also been introduced in Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana and Virginia in recent years. None passed, but advocates say Oklahoma’s law could result in a new wave of similar bills. “The copycat thing is very real,” said Cathryn Oakley, senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, which tracks the legislation and is the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group.
Nationwide, GOP state lawmakers have filed nearly 200 bills this year seeking to restrict protections for transgender and gay youth or discussion of LGBTQ topics in public schools. That is nearly quadruple the number of similar bills introduced three years ago, according to data from Freedom for All Americans, an LGBTQ advocacy group. So far this year, 24 bills have passed in state legislatures and six have become law, according to Freedom for All Americans.
More than a dozen of the bills introduced this year attempted to create new hurdles for trans people to secure identification matching their gender identity or sought bans similar to Oklahoma’s.
Many states and the federal government, meanwhile, have recently made it easier for trans people to secure ID. Over the past decade, 21 states and the District of Columbia have allowed X gender markers for nonbinary people on driver’s licenses. Sixteen states and D.C. have adopted rules to allow the X gender markers on birth certificates. These changes have largely taken place through policy and as a result of legal challenges. The State Department last year, as a result of a court-ordered settlement, also began issuing passports with a nonbinary designation.
In Oklahoma, residents could previously change their gender on birth certificates by getting a court order. But Republicans objected last year when an Oklahoma-born Oregon resident won a court order for the state health department to issue a new birth certificate with a nonbinary designation.
Stitt blocked compliance with the settlement agreement, issuing his executive order while asking the legislature to introduce a bill to create a legal ban. Oklahoma Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R), the bill’s Senate sponsor, and Rep. Sheila Dills (R), the House sponsor, echoed Stitt’s rationale for banning the practice.
″We want clarity and truth on official state documents,” Dills said in a statement. “Information should be based on established medical fact and not an ever-changing social dialogue.”
Bergstrom added: “We must stand up and put a stop to this nonsense regarding biological sex. It’s not a complicated issue — biologically, you’re either a male or female. There should be no other option to choose from on a birth certificate.”
The GOP-controlled Oklahoma House and Senate passed the bill Stitt asked for, but there was opposition, most notably from the nation’s first openly nonbinary state lawmaker, Oklahoma Rep. Mauree Turner (D), who said on Twitter that it represented an “extreme and grotesque use of power.”
Polls suggest a deep partisan divide in the United States regarding efforts to advance the rights of trans people. For example, a 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that 59 percent of Democrats said a greater acceptance of transgender people is good for society, while 54 percent of Republicans said it was bad for society.
According to a study by UCLA’s Williams Institute, about 0.6 percent of adults and 0.7 percent of youth identify as transgender, which includes a nonbinary designation. According to another UCLA study, as many as 476,000 transgender adults do not have a driver’s license or other state identification that matches their gender identity. That represents about 34 percent of trans people across the country.
“What the Oklahoma governor has done goes against the grain of every lawsuit and settlement in recent years that has said everyone has the right to an identity document that matches who they are,” said Shelly Skeen, senior attorney for Lambda Legal, an advocacy group that successfully challenged the State Department’s position on gender identity on passports and has sued Stitt and the state of Oklahoma over his executive order.
Oklahoma Republicans, though, have argued that the changes reflect their understanding of science.
“The question before us is very simple. Do we want the truth on a birth certificate, a legal document, representing a person’s biological sex, or do we want a lie?” Dills said in a statement, adding that “my truth is based on my faith and science.”
The American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association, among other groups, have spoken in opposition to recent legislative efforts to restrict LGBTQ rights, particularly bills that seek to ban gender-affirming medical care for youth. The AMA last year adopted a policy that calls for the removal of gender markers altogether on birth certificates.
In a letter last month to governors, the AMA said that “empirical evidence has demonstrated that trans and nonbinary gender identities are normal variations of human identity and expression.” The groups note that studies have shown that suicide rates drop when trans people are recognized by their accurate gender identity by friends, family and government officials.
“It’s a matter of safety and the ability to participate in society,” said Olivia Hunt, policy director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, an advocacy group.