The New York City Board of Health voted unanimously this week against a measure to allow transgender people to amend their birth certificates without requiring that they undergo sex reassignment surgery.

Transgender advocates who worked with the Board of Health to propose these policy changes have voiced their surprise and disappointment about the vote

The National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems’ White Paper on Recommendations for Improvements in Birth Certificates notes, “a birth certificate breeds all others: Social Security cards, school records, driver’s licenses, passports and employment records. In the United States, it means citizenship.”

Having a birth certificate that shows the wrong gender can make doing any of those things difficult or impossible. When transgender people show a certificate with a gender other than the one they live in, they may be accused of fraud, turned away, or harassed, arrested, attacked, humiliated, or discriminated against. Even in the best of cases they may face embarrassment, confusion, and delays in procedure.

“Along with the responsibility to document births is the responsibility to document them accurately. How then can it be in the best interest of the transgender citizens of New York City to refuse them access to accurate birth records?,” says Carrie Davis, Coordinator of the Gender Identity Project and Director of Adult Services at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender Community Centre.

The Board of Health cited operational issues and federal security ramifications for their decision to vote against the new proposal, pointing to the importance of consistent and accurate identification on local and federal levels. Ray Carannante, the Gender Identity Project’s Social Worker, emphasised failure to enact this proposal actually creates, rather than resolves, security concerns, “If transgender individuals are unable to present accurate identification when they travel or apply for employment, they will undoubtedly continue to be harassed and accused of fraudulent, even criminal, behaviour. Imagine the resources that are and will continue to be wasted in unneeded security measures taken to investigate transgender individuals who are unjustly profiled . “

This decision also contravenes the will of the New York City Council and the Mayor, which passed and signed into law a revision to the New York City Human Rights Law in April of 2002 defining gender as inclusive of “gender identity; self-image; appearance; and, behaviour or expression, whether or not that gender identity, self-image, appearance, behaviour or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the legal sex assigned to an individual at birth.”

The change to the Human Rights Law was designed to protect all New Yorkers from discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression and the City has been actively working to resolve so-called “operational issues” since that time. This process began with the issuance of “Guidelines Regarding ‘Gender Identity’ Discrimination” in December of 2004. The proposed birth certificate policy revision is an extension of this course of action and would allow transgender people equal access to vital records critical to survival and social participation.

To its credit, the Board of Health did vote to allow individuals who have undergone very specific gender reassignment surgical procedures to obtain an altered gender demarcation on their birth certificate. While this is a positive and necessary revision to a policy made over 30-years ago, it fails to address the grave physical and social needs of the vast majority of the transgender people in New York City, many of whom will never be able to access these surgeries for financial, medical, religious, or other personal reasons.

The accurate registration of birth certificates is indeed a security matter and there may be operational issues to overcome. “Despite that,” according to Davis, “this duty of proud local jurisdictions like New York City should never become a barrier to anyone’s active participation in our society. We can clearly do better for our transgender citizens. the City of New York missed a potent opportunity to serve its citizens. It is time to step forward once again to resolve these concerns.”