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ACLU suing IDPH over criteria for trans individuals
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times
2011-05-18

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John Knight. Photo by Jay Geneske


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) for requiring transgender people to prove they have undergone a series of sex-reassignment surgeries before they can change the gender marker on their birth certificates.

The ACLU released a statement May 10, claiming that the State Registrar of Vital Records had failed to uphold a promise it made two years ago to amend outdated policies that blocked most transgender men and many transgender women from updating their birth certificates.

"Illinois is the only state that requires genital surgery," said John Knight, who directs the ACLU's LBGT and AIDS Project. Knight said that other states that allow transgender people to amend their birth certificates typically require a doctor's letter stating that a person has changed their sex in some way, even if they haven't undergone genital surgery.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two transgender men and one transgender woman, Lauren Grey.

Grey told Windy City Times that she has been working on changing her documents to say female since 2006 and has successfully changed her name and driver's license, although updating documents has cost her more than $1,000 in both application and legal fees. She said she has been trying to change her birth certificate for more than a year and was recently rejected because she had not completed all the surgeries required.

"The fact that a piece of paper can say you aren't who you are is kind of insulting," Grey said. "I'm not treated as a male in any other way."

IDPH declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Whether the state registrar of vital records currently has a written policy is unclear, said Knight. Knight said that until 2005, most transgender people had been able to change their birth certificates without undergoing surgeries.

Knight represented three transgender individuals who sued IDPH for birth certificate amendments in 2009. IDPH settled that suit by granting the plaintiffs birth certificates, throwing out a policy that refused to recognize transgender surgeries performed by physicians licensed outside of the country, and promising to update birth certificate policies to make it easier for transgender people to update their paperwork.

The ACLU said that IDPH failed to make good on that promise.

IDPH released a new proposed policy in January, but that proposal was met with immediate opposition by transgender community leaders. It also mandated a laundry list of surgeries, especially for transgender men who rarely undergo genital surgery, which is both costly and still considered experimental by many.

Dr. Randi Ettner, a clinical and forensic psychologist who sometimes consults for ACLU, said that policy "places people at risk."

"It creates this notion that there is only one way to be human being," Ettner said. "The birth certificate is a fundamental identity document… and for people who are working towards an identity and hoping to live in alignment with that identity, it doesn't reflect the truth about them."

Not all in the transgender community support the ACLU lawsuit, however. Following the ACLU announcement, Illinois Gender Advocates (IGA) released a statement of non-support for the lawsuit.

IGA had been working with IDPH on amending the proposed policy.

"We are dismayed that the ACLU has chosen to independently interject itself into the process, in such a confrontational and non-productive manner," the IGA statement read.

Candice Hart, the president of IGA, told Windy City Times that she thought IGA was just two to three months from coming to an agreement on the policy. She said that IDPH had been receptive and was working towards a better policy.

However, Knight said his clients cannot wait any longer. "We've been telling the department for two years that its arbitrary surgery rules clash with the medical standard of care for transgender people and make it impossible for most transgender people to correct the gender on their birth certificates," he said in the press release. "We took them at their word when they said they would make an appropriate change, but all we've seen is more delay. It's time that they did something to fix that."


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