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Transgender plaintiffs sue Tennessee to change birth certificate gender

"In times where anti-trans violence is escalating, I deserve to have identity documents that reflect who I am," Kayla Gore, the lead plaintiff, said.
Lead plaintiff Kayla Gore speaks at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee on April 23, 2019. She announced a lawsuit challenging a Tennessee statute that prohibits transgender people from changing the gender listed on their birth certificates.Travis Loller / AP

When Jason Scott wanted to attend community college in Seattle, he needed a high school transcript, and he couldn’t get that without a birth certificate. The only problem was that Scott is transgender and his Tennessee birth certificate lists him as female.

The resulting confusion prevented Scott from enrolling the first semester, and he nearly lost his scholarship, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Nashville on Tuesday.

In the suit, Gore v. Lee, Scott and three transgender women challenge a Tennessee statute that prohibits transgender people from changing the gender listed on their birth certificates.

In an interview, attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, with Lambda Legal, said Tennessee is one of only three states that doesn’t allow the change. The LGBTQ rights advocacy group has ongoing lawsuits in Kansas and Ohio over the issue.

"Forty-seven states, DC and Puerto acknowledge the importance of allowing people to have access to essential government identity documents that accurately reflect their sex, consistent with their gender identity," Gonzalez-Pagan said. "It is time for Tennessee to join them."

A spokeswoman for the Tennessee attorney general’s office did not immediately have a comment on the lawsuit when contacted Tuesday.

Tennessee does allow some changes to birth certificates including name changes where a person has legally changed his or her name and, in cases of adoption, changes to listed parents, according to the lawsuit.

Tennessee even allows gender changes if a person presents a notarized affidavit and “documentary evidence showing the correct sex of the individual,” according to the lawsuit. But the Tennessee Vital Records Act includes a provision that “the sex of an individual shall not be changed on the original certificate of birth as a result of sex change surgery.”

However, the state allows transgender residents to change the listed gender on their driver’s licenses and state identification cards.

The lawsuit claims Tennessee’s prohibition serves no legitimate government interest while it subjects transgender people to discrimination, harassment and even violence. It seeks a determination that the statute is unconstitutional.

Kayla Gore is the lead plaintiff in the case. Speaking at the Tuesday news conference, she said she had similar issues to Scott when applying to community college, where she currently studies sociology. She has also had problems at jobs where she had to show her birth certificate, outing herself as transgender.

“People would make comments about my previous gender, about not being a complete woman,” she said. “There was just a lot of bullying.”

According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, almost one-third of transgender individuals who showed an identity document with a name or gender marker that conflicted with their perceived gender were harassed, denied benefits or services or assaulted.

Transgender people are also disproportionately targeted for hate crimes. In 2018, advocates tracked at least 26 deaths of transgender people in the U.S. due to violence, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

"In times where anti-trans violence is escalating, especially against transgender women of color, I deserve to have identity documents that reflect who I am," Gore said.

Twelve anti-LGBTQ bills, dubbed by activists as a "slate of hate," are currently moving in the Tennessee legislature. Each of the proposed bills would limit the rights of LGBTQ Tennesseans in some way — from protecting adoption agencies that turn them away, to criminalizing transgender people for using public facilities that align with their gender identity, to banning same-sex marriage.