When advocates explain M and F to legislators

Another excerpt from Chapter 2. The notes are not included since they’re still a bit messy. You can view the 2012 committee bill hearing here, starting at about 1:45 minutes in. I usually show it in my Trans Theories and Politics class. 

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In 1977, Tennessee legislators voted to prohibit individuals from changing Tennessee birth certificates to indicate their new sex. While policy in Ohio and Idaho achieves the same end, Tennessee is the only state where legislators affirmatively voted to deny this recognition. A bill to reverse this and make it possible to change the sex marker on birth certificates issues by Tennessee was introduced in 2011 and considered by the Tennessee House Health and Human Resources Subcommittee the following year. Because rules for sex classification are usually decided at the administrative level—as common sense “housekeeping” rules that require no public comment or, more recently, as publicly promulgated policies—it’s a very rare thing for lawmakers to expound publicly on the parameters of sex. The exchange between Republican Senator Joey Hensley and two of the bill’s advocates—LGBT rights attorney Abby Rubenfeld and Marissa Richmond, president of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition—succinctly captures the points of disagreement. Rubenfeld ends her remarks to the committee by comparing changing gender to changing one’s name.

Rubenfeld: There is no problem with changing birth certificates in this way, to change somebody’s name or to change their gender designation….And changing this law…will do a great service to the few people that need to do this whose lives are prejudiced and are damaged in significant ways because they can’t make this  vital correction….Birth certificates are routinely changed and there’s never a problem about that. We change names on birth certificates. You can go to court here in Nashville and get your name changed for any reason that you want and change it on your birth certificate, any reason that you want and you’ll have a new birth certificate that has that name with no record of your old name.


Senator Joey Hensley: So you say that you can change the name but can you change the date or the place of birth on your birth certificate?

Abby Rubenfeld: I don’t think so. I don’t know why anybody would want to.

Joey Hensley: Well, I would think that would be the same way this is. That’s a fact when someone is born, they’re born at a certain time, they’re born at a certain place, and they’re born a certain gender. And the birth certificate is just designating that.

Abby Rubenfeld: But they’re also born with a certain name and it’s changed easily.

Senator Hensley: Names can be changed. Names are something given to a person after birth.

Abby Rubenfeld: But gender designation I would respectively suggest is also just given to a person at birth….But for people who take this extraordinary step to correct their physical gender to match what they really are, that is a fact for them, it’s a fact from birth.

Senator Hensley: We just disagree about that.

The bill would not only have reversed Tennessee legislation on the question and aligned its policy with that of the 47 other states that allow one’s sex designation to be changed on birth certificates. Because the requirements in the bill did not list surgery or body modification of any kind, passage of this legislation would also have catapulted Tennessee to the forefront of policy on the issue at the time. The rule in Tennessee would have been essentially the same as the Department of State’s passport rule, and the two other states with the most liberal criteria for changing sex on birth certificates at the time, California and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia.[iv] While the advocates and the bill’s sponsors couched their argument in terms of physical transition—the traditional narratives most intelligible to elected officials and the public alike—the evidence required in this bill was a sworn statement from a physician, psychologist or social worker “that the gender of the person had been changed.” Below the questioning turns on what evidence would be appropriate for a change of sex:

Senator Hensley:….But what exactly has to determine someone’s gender. I notice this amendment lists several different people that can have a sworn statement. Physician and then it goes ahead and I don’t know why you list all of these but a surgeon and an endocrinologist and a gynecologist and internist, a neurologist and psychiatrist. Those are all physicians. And then you go to psychologist or a social worker. How can a social worker have a sworn statement about someone’s gender?

Abby Rubenfeld: I would just point out that in this time when we’re trying to have limited government I don’t know why legislators can make that decision either.

Marissa Richmond: Those categories are based on what the US State Department picked for the gender change policy for the passport, and so all of those categories are professional categories who treat and deal with transgender people. And that’s why those specific categories were selected.

Senator Hensley: Is this someone who has gone through all the physical changes to change their gender or is just this someone that cross-dressers, they can change their gender.

Marissa Richmond: Cross dressers are not defined as someone who has changed their gender so they would not fall under this particular law, if this bill becomes a law.

Senator Hensley: What does designate when someone has changed their gender?

Marissa Richmond: ….That is a definition determined by the medical community, and in consultation between that care provider and the patient and to determine what procedures and steps are necessary. And for certain people, for instance in a wheelchair, they would not be allowed in certain cases to get certain procedures but nonetheless their gender change would have actually occurred. But yet the medical profession may not be willing to take it a full step.  But they would still have transitioned, changed their lives, they would assume a new gender and this bill would allow them to have a document which then they can take out and carry on with the rest of their lives and matching up all their other documents at one time.

Senator Hensley:  But you’re adding social worker as somebody that can have a sworn statement. Even if this bill passed it would seem like adding someone who was a social worker is a stretch.

Marissa Richmond: We can remove that particular category.

Senator Hensley: I don’t support it anyway but adding a social worker is a stretch.


Senator Hensley simply doesn’t believe sex can change. As he puts it—”we just disagree about that.” But, he advises the advocates, even if sex can change, that change shouldn’t be based on the sworn statement of a social worker. At that moment in the hearing, the bill’s sponsor, Jeanne Richardson, Democrat from Memphis, stood up and offered to remove psychologist and social worker from the bill. She then made a final statement:

For someone to have surgery or to change their lives this totally is a very very serious thoughtful process. This is not something that’s done lightly….It has to do with the person and their personhood and what they are, it’s as essential as anything could be about them.  There are very few people in our society that make this decision, but I respect those people that do….So when they make that decision, and we have medical professionals who will back them up, I see no reason why the rest of us should challenge that.

Despite Richardson’s plea to her legislative colleagues to think of gender identity as a central aspect of personhood that they should refrain from interfering with, a few minutes later the bill voted down.