October 23, 2021

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Utah Republican pushes anti-trans legislation to stop folks from updating sex on birth certificate

State Rep. Merill Nelson is trying to fight a decision made by the Utah Supreme Court back in May. At the time, the court ruled in favor of two openly trans plaintiffs who sued after a judge gave permission for their name changes but not to update their gender markers on their birth certificates. So for example, this could look like me changing my first name to “Ben,” but the sex on my birth certificate still reading “female.”

Who really cares about birth certificates? When it comes to legal processes, a lot of people. Think about how often you need your birth certificate whenever you need to do something “official”—say, applying for your passport, replacing a lost copy of your social security card or license, or getting married. Sure, there are times when you can substitute one document for another, but it’s inarguably a valuable source of identification. And not having your correct gender marker listed essentially “outs” you as trans to whoever is reviewing the document, even if it has nothing at all to do with the situation at hand. That’s potentially dangerous and opens people up to possible discrimination. 

So, back in May in Utah, the court ruled that judges must grant gender marker change requests provided that the person who petitions the court is able to prove they are not making the request for any “fraudulent” purpose, as well as having evidence they’ve undergone gender-affirming medical treatments. (I personally don’t believe medical transition should be a requirement, but I digress). In Utah, one cannot change the gender on their birth certificate without a court order.

Now, Rep. Nelson is arguing that folks should not be allowed to update the sex on their birth certificates. “I don’t think it’s sound public policy to equate biological sex with gender identity,” he said on Wednesday, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune. “I think they are two different things.”

Nelson, who serves on the Utah House Health and Human Services Interim Committee, has previously introduced legislation to stop people from updating the sex on their birth certificates. He withdrew the bill due to backlash, but apparently, his views haven’t changed in the past few years.

Like many who push anti-trans legislation, Nelson also insists that he isn’t transphobic and that it’s not even about trans folks. According to the Tribune, he said he doesn’t think trans people should have to go to court to “declare their gender identity.” 

“I think they should be free to declare it anytime, any place, and be respected in that gender identity,” he stated. “But as far as a birth certificate, that’s a different document, and sex [is] different from gender identity.” 

As mentioned before, legal documents are important, necessary, and if incorrect, can expose an already vulnerable population to discrimination and violence. In this case, part of having one’s gender identity be “respected,” as Nelson put it, involves updating official documentation. Instead, Nelson’s bill would essentially erase trans people.

One frustrating part of arguments like Nelson’s is that they decenter the core point and potentially legitimize anti-trans rhetoric in the ideas of moderate (or even progressive) people. It’s frighteningly easy for well-intentioned, educated people to start talking about the difference between “sex” and “gender,” for example, and all of a sudden back discriminatory legislation without realizing the full harm they’re perpetuating.

At the real center, we know trans people—like everyone else—should be able to update their legal documents without qualm, harassment, or controversy. There is nothing scary, strange, or dangerous about trans folks having accurate, up-to-date information reflected on their legal, identifying documents. The fearmongering is a distraction, and, even worse, adds to the demonization of an already marginalized group. 

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