At Birth: Who I Was vs Who I Am
More thoughts on documenting name and gender changes
In a recent story where I explained why I am not planning to update my state ID to show a non-binary gender marker, I said that I already changed all of my identification documents from female to male five years ago. However, this is not quite true. One particular form of identification that I have not updated, and do not plan to, is the very first that was issued in my lifetime: My birth certificate.
When I was born in 1970, I was assigned female and given conventionally feminine first and middle names based on the external appearance of my genitals— i.e., I appeared to have a normal-looking vulva, and no penis or testicles. That sex and name were recorded in the birth registry and printed on my birth certificate. I have no real problems with these actions that took place.
While I was never fond of my deadname (birth-assigned name), it was a variant on the name of a deceased male relative, following a Jewish tradition on my father’s side of the family. No one could have foreseen that just seeing or hearing my deadname would cause me distress decades later, or that I would so thoroughly distance myself from my birth family that I would legally change my last name along with the rest.
And while I am still not fond of my vulva (which is not nearly so easy to alter as a name!), I recognize that the vast majority of infants with vulvas grow up to be cisgender females: Girls and women who agree with their assigned sexes, unlike transgender men or non-binary people like myself. Under such circumstances, it made perfect sense to write “female” on my birth certificate.
My feeling — and I emphasize here that I speak here only for myself, not other trans people — is that my birth certificate was reasonably correct for the moment in time in which it was produced. My mother gave birth to a baby that appeared to be a “normal”, healthy female, and she and my father gave that baby a “girl’s” name that they had already picked out.
I was not Pax Ahimsa Gethen until I chose that name for myself in 2013. Amending my birth certificate to show that name feels false and wrong to me. If I hadn’t already been estranged from my family before I began my transition, I might have taken the path that some other trans folks have, and changed to the name that my parents would have given me if I’d been “born a boy” (assigned male). In that case, amending my birth certificate to show my “male” name — which I knew and liked better than the female variant I got stuck with— would have made more sense.
As to my sex, things get a little more complicated. Many trans people feel that they were always the gender they transitioned to, and I respect this. Even though I am openly trans and did not transition until my mid-40s, I avoid referring to myself as a female at any stage of my life; when needed for clarity, I use phrases like “while being raised as a girl” or “when I was living as a woman”.
However, I don’t feel that changing the sex designation on my birth certificate to male or non-binary (if that option were available to me) would be entirely accurate either. Since I began hormone therapy in 2014, I’ve had a strong sense that I’ve always belonged in a body dominated by testosterone rather than estrogen. But most of the noticeable changes have been to secondary sex characteristics — such as hair and voice — which weren’t factors when I was a newborn. And while I would love to have been born with a penis instead of a vulva, changing to a male designation on my birth certificate won’t do anything to correct that mismatch between body and brain.
I again emphasize that these are my views about my particular situation. I am openly trans (not stealth); it is not hard to find my deadname online, and I have not attempted to conceal my past identity. In any case, I have not needed to produce my birth certificate for any reason that I can remember, whether for employment or at any stage of my gender transition. I do have a copy of it in a fire safe. I can’t remember the last time I looked at it, or why I even asked my mother to send me a copy of it in the first place. Out of sight, out of mind.
Some activists call for eliminating sex from birth records altogether, and I sympathize with that view. But I feel there is still value in recording this bit of demographic information — or at least including it in an anonymous data collection— for a number of reasons, including measuring progress toward gender equality (however flawed our understanding of gender and sex is at this time). Having a non-binary or “X” marker can make sense in the case of intersex infants, or parents who want to raise their children without anyone presuming their genders based on what genitals they have. But in these cases controversies and disagreements have arisen even within intersex and trans communities as to what is best for the child.
Regardless, all trans, non-binary, and intersex people should have the right to update their birth certificates to match their current identities. As with other identity documents, the laws regarding updating gender markers on U.S. birth certificates vary by state; some require proof of sex reassignment surgery, and others refuse to amend them at all. Very few states allow an “X” marker; Utah, surprisingly given their not particularly LGBT-friendly laws, is one that does.
I am satisfied with my current name and agender trans male identity, regardless of what is written about me in official records. I’m fortunate to have updated enough of my records — not just government IDs but credit cards, utility bills, etc. — that I don’t have to see or hear my deadname all the time anymore. Every trans and non-binary person should enjoy that privilege.