In a case that could have repercussions around the US, a New York judge has severely criticised the health officials of the city for the complex bureaucratic requirements that trans men and women must negotiate in order to update details on their identity documents such as passports.  

Louis Birney, 70, had to undergo a protracted sex-change operation in order to become a man, and wanted his birth certificate to reflect that fact. However, the health department of the city asked for a psychiatric report and detailed surgical records in order to make the requested amendment in his birth certificate.

These are undue roadblocks, a judge said in his ruling last week, and questioned how well the agency understood the “lives and experience (sic) of transgendered people.” Erica Kagan, speaking for Mr Birney, who has refused interviews, said, “I hope that the Department of Health will really take this to heart and really see that the court is, in this decision, recognizing the importance of respecting the identities of transgender individuals.”

Mr Birney’s case is not unique in that transgender men and women have increasingly expressed frustration at how different agencies and organisations have different rules as to how identity documents should be amended. In his own case, a letter from Mr Birney’s doctor confirming the successful completion of the procedure was not enough. He said that the requests for detailed surgical records were tantamount to invasion of privacy.

Justice Paul G. Feinman of the Manhattan State Supreme Court, who ruled on Mr Birney’s lawsuit, reprimanded the authorities for not providing a “clear, straightforward list” of what it takes to amend the birth certificate. “It does not seem very likely that an individual would go through all the years of required preparation for surgical transition, including psychotherapy, undergo major surgery, assume life under his or her new gender, and then decide it was all a mistake and change back,” Feinman wrote in his judgement. “This apparent assumption tends to suggest a certain ignorance by the department of the lengthy transition process and the lives and experience of transgender people,” he added.

The US State Department had pre-empted this ruling, however, when it announced in 2010 that transgender travellers would need only a certification of appropriate treatment, not the previously required completion of surgery, to declare a change in gender on their passports. Washington soon followed suit, requiring a clinical attestation of “appropriate” treatment to amend their gender on their driving licence.

Some city lawyers feel that this case could prove influential in future judgements concerning transgender rights.