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Meet the Trans People Fighting to Overturn Tennessee’s Discriminatory Birth Certificate Policy

"These cases are about ensuring the government recognizes and respects our autonomy and liberty as individuals to define who we are."

Pictured above: Kayla Gore.

Kayla Gore had to put off going back to college for nearly a year. It wasn’t because her application was rejected or she was waitlisted. It’s because her birth certificate claims Gore is a man, and her state won’t let her correct it.

Gore, a 33-year-old transgender woman who resides in Memphis, has her Social Security card, voter registration card, and Tennessee identification card updated to reflect her lived gender identity. However, a 1977 law known as the Tennessee Vital Records Act forbids individuals from updating the gender listed on their “original certificate of birth as a result of sex change surgery.”

Because of that policy, Gore says some administrators at her college thought she was “committing fraud” when she explained why her birth certificate has an “M” listed on it.

“I had to prove my identity to all these different government agencies and to the school,” Gore tells NewNowNext. “There was a lot of mental anguish feeling that people didn't believe who I was. Each time I would call, I would talk to a different representative and have to re-explain the situation again.”

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Memphis, Tennessee, USA downtown skyline.

Memphis skyline.

The predicament significantly slowed her enrollment. Gore, who had hoped to study sociology, would have to wait until the following spring to begin taking classes.

After that ordeal, Gore hopes to ensure no other trans person goes through the same thing. Last week, she signed on as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee challenging the Volunteer State’s birth certificate policy. The suit names Republican Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey as defendants.

The case was filed by Lambda Legal, which has recently overturned policies blocking transgender people from updating their birth certificates in Idaho and Puerto Rico.

Senior attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan claims the Tennessee case is “in many ways a culmination” of the LGBTQ legal group’s advocacy on birth certificate bans. Lambda Legal currently has cases pending in Kansas and Ohio, the only two other U.S. states which do not allow transgender people to correct their vital records.

“Ultimately, these cases are about ensuring the government recognizes and respects our autonomy and liberty as individuals to define who we are,” he tells NewNowNext. “Everybody has that right.”

Three other plaintiffs joined Gore and Lambda Legal in the lawsuit. Jason Scott, who currently lives in Seattle, has faced issues his entire adult life because of his home state’s discriminatory policies. When he went back to college, he almost lost his scholarship because he couldn’t obtain his high school transcript. He needed a corrected birth certificate to get it.

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Jason Scott.

“It's always this small issue that isn't a problem until it is,” the 47-year-old says to NewNowNext, “and then it creates these roadblocks that are kind of above and beyond what people whose birth certificate are correct have to go through.”

A third plaintiff attached to the suit alleges similar mistreatment. A trans woman identified as “L.G.” in court documents claims she struggled to update her driver’s license because of confusion surrounding Tennessee’s birth certificate policy. When a police officer asked to see her identification after she was involved in a car accident, she claims the official subjected her to “invasive and uncomfortable questions.”

The final plaintiff, referred to as “K.N.,” fears being subjected to “invasions of privacy, prejudice, discrimination, distress, harassment, or violence” as a result of the incongruity between her gender identity and her birth certificate, as the lawsuit claims.

According to Gonzalez-Pagan, the ways in which transgender people could potentially be discriminated against for not having a corrected birth certificate is innumerable. Calling it the “quintessential identity document,” he claims that what is listed in our vital records “affects every aspect of our lives.”

“It is your first identity document,” he says. “You use it to obtain access to governmental services. You use it to prove your citizenship when you're applying for a job.”

Even in states which permit trans people to update their birth certificates, applicants may continue to face significant barriers. For instance, at least 11 states—including Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, and Wisconsin—require trans people to complete gender confirmation surgery before requests to amend a birth certificate will be granted.

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Diffterent forms of identification. pictured are three social security cards on top of a birth certificate covered by two american passports.

That policy is extremely burdensome for a population that’s disproportionately likely to face poverty. A full surgical transition typically costs between $40,000 and $50,000 without insurance coverage.

According to the National Center for Trans Equality, only 9% of trans people in the U.S. have corrected birth certificates.

Without a clear pathway to update their birth records, transgender people across the country will not only continue to face discrimination but avoid engaging in public life due to fear of mistreatment.

After Gore was inexplicably removed from a cashier position and reassigned to prep work—where she wouldn’t interact with members of the public—when former employers discovered her gender identity, she stopped applying any job that asked to see a birth certificate. Gore has put off going to the emergency room, even in life-threatening situations, because she knows she will be misgendered.

“I have a lot of anxiety,” Gore says. “I'm very hesitant to access to anything where [a birth certificate is] a required document.”

Scott knows that feeling well. To this day, he has never applied for a U.S. passport. While he knows he might be able to get one without updating the gender marker on his birth certificate, Scott doesn’t want to go through the same situation that Gore recalled—of being forced to explain his gender identity over and over again. Without a valid passport, Scott is essentially forbidden from leaving his own country.

“The most exotic place I’ve been is Vancouver, Canada, and pretty soon I’ll need a passport to travel there, too,” he says. “Getting a passport presents too many opportunities for me to out myself in a setting that isn't safe.”

Having internalized the way society treats transgender people, Scott says that he learned over the years to limit himself. He was taught not to want too much or dream too big because it might never happen. When NewNowNext asked what it would mean to have a corrected birth certificate after beginning his transition three decades ago, he says he won’t believe it until the document is in his hands.

“That’s the story of every minority as they gain acceptance,” Scott claims. “You don’t reach for things that other people reach for because you know the door is going to be closed in your face.”

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