Transgender teen sues New York over birth certificate gender marker

While New York state has permitted transgender individuals to change the gender on their birth certificates since 2014, the policy does not apply to minors.
By Brooke Sopelsa

A 14-year-old transgender boy is suing New York state over its policy barring minors from changing the gender marker on their birth certificates.

“Possessing accurate identification documents that are consistent with a person’s gender identity — a person’s core internal sense of their own gender — is essential to their basic social and economic well-being,” the lawsuit, filed Tuesday by the LGBTQ legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, states. “Access to employment, education, housing, health care, banking, travel and government services all hinge on having appropriate and accurate personal documentation that reflects a person’s true identity.”

Since 2014, New York state has allowed transgender adults to change the gender marker on their birth certificates. However, the policy does not extend to those younger than 18. Tuesday’s lawsuit claims this policy “violates the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal dignity, equal protection of the laws, fundamental rights to privacy, liberty, and autonomy, and freedom of speech.”

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Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, one of the Lambda Legal attorneys working on the case, said the state's existing policy could also put transgender youth in harm's way.

“Studies show that having inaccurate identification documents exposes transgender people to discrimination, harassment and violence," he said in a statement. "Moreover, transgender minors suffer from higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicide rates when they don’t have a supportive environment."

In a statement emailed to NBC News on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, one of the defendants listed in the suit, touted New York state’s record as a leader in LGBTQ rights and said the lawsuit was currently being reviewed.

“From passing GENDA, to outlawing conversion therapy and eliminating the so-called ‘trans panic’ defense, New York has always been at the forefront of protecting and advancing the civil rights of transgender and gender nonconforming people,” Peter Ajemian, senior deputy communications director for the governor's office, stated. “We are deeply sympathetic to the situation as it has been described to us and are reviewing this lawsuit.”

The teen at the center of the lawsuit, referred to only as M.H.W., was born in Ithaca, New York, but now resides in Houston, where he attends high school. In a statement released Tuesday, M.H.W. pleaded with the state to change his birth certificate gender marker from female to male and “respect my identity.”

“I am a boy. It’s frustrating to see New York State deny me the opportunity to correct my birth certificate, which I need for so many important facets of my life,” he stated. “Having an inaccurate birth certificate can cause the disclosure of my transgender status when I enroll in college classes or when I get my driver’s license, and expose me to possible harm.”

M.H.W.’s mother, Jennifer Wingard, is listed along with her son as a plaintiff. Wingard said she just wants “what is best” for her son.

“Our son is a boy, but New York State refuses to recognize him as such,” Wingard said in a statement. “We have been able to update our son’s other identity documents, such as his passport and social security records. So we were shocked when the only remaining roadblock came from New York State.”

Currently, at least 28 states allow transgender adults to change the gender marker on their birth certificates, though some of them require proof of sex reassignment surgery or a court order to do so, according to the LGBTQ think tank Movement Advancement Project. A number of these states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington permit trans minors to do so as well, according to Lambda Legal.

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