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LGBTQ Nation: Tennessee judge upholds anti-transgender birth certificate law


A federal court judge in Tennessee has upheld a state law preventing transgender people from correcting the gender marker on their birth certificates.

Last week, Judge Eli Richardson of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee dismissed a lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal on behalf of four transgender people born in the state seeking to overturn the 1977 law.

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According to the complaint, filed in April 2019, Tennessee’s “policy categorically barring transgender people from correcting the gender marker on their birth certificates subjects transgender people to invasions of privacy, prejudice, discrimination, humiliation, harassment, stigma, and even violence and establishes a barrier to transgender persons’ full engagement in society.” The complaint alleged that the state’s policy violates trans people’s constitutional rights to equal protection, due process, and free speech.

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In his ruling, Richardson said that while the word “sex” has multiple definitions in different contexts, for the purposes of Tennessee birth certificates the word “has a very narrow and specific meaning.” He rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that a person’s “true sex [is] determined by their gender identity” and agreed with the defendants that “the narrow purpose of the sex field on a birth certificate is to record a person’s sex at the time of birth, not to predict that person’s eventual gender identity.”

Richardson suggested that while it might be “a good idea for the State to have a policy that would allow changes to birth certificates based on gender identity,” it was not for him to say what Tennessee’s policy should be. Instead, he ruled that the state’s policy does not violate plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection, due process, or free speech.

In a statement, Lambda Legal counsel and health care strategist Omar Gonzalez-Pagan said that the organization was disappointed in the decision, which he said, “which fails to acknowledge the incontrovertible truth that birth certificates are the quintessential identity document.”

“Tennessee’s discriminatory birth certificate policy forces transgender Tennesseans to out themselves and to use an identity document inconsistent with who they are. This is wrong,” Gonzalez-Pagan continued. “As Tennessee continues to target transgender people for discrimination and opprobrium, we will continue to fight for their rights. We continue to evaluate what next steps we will take in this case.”

“At a time where we are under attack, I am devastated to see that after years waiting for this decision, the court has refused to allow us the opportunity to prove our case,” said Kayla Gore, one of two plaintiffs identified by name in the suit. “Tennessee’s discriminatory birth certificate policy has not only gravely impacted my life, but also presents a roadblock for all transgender Tennesseans. We deserve recognition and dignity from the government just as much as every other Tennessean.”

“It’s hard to exist as a transgender person in Tennessee at this moment. To have the court join state officials to willfully not see us for who we are adds to that burden,” said plaintiff Jaime Combs. “All my life I’ve been carrying an inaccurate birth certificate, complicating my life and making me feel not seen by my government. Today, my heart is saddened as the court has refused to address the harms imposed by Tennessee’s policy, but I will continue to fight against the discrimination that continues to be perpetuated by the state of Tennessee.”

According to Lambda Legal, when the complaint was filed in 2019, Tennessee was one of only three states that banned transgender people from correcting the sex designations on their birth certificates. Federal courts in Kansas and Ohio have since ruled that those states’ policies were unconstitutional, while states like Montana, North Dakota, and Oklahoma have adopted similar anti-trans policies.

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