Twin wins

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday October 19, 2011
Share this Post:
Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

In and among hundreds of pieces of legislation, two bills recently crossed California Governor Jerry Brown's desk that directly affect transgender residents of the Golden State.

First is the Gender Non-Discrimination Act, AB 887, which strengthens California's non-discrimination laws. While "gender identity and expression" was already included as a type of gender-based discrimination in the state, this bill separates it into its own protected category, making it that much clearer that discrimination based on gender expression and identity will not fly in California.

It may seem minor, given that such was already part of the law, but having it expressly spelled out will allow California's non-discrimination laws to work better on behalf of transgender people.

I should mention that the bill includes public accommodations alongside the workplace, housing, and school. This is worth noting in those places where public accommodation language has been stripped from a bill, or where opponents have latched onto false statements about such protections allowing rapists and pedophiles free reign of opposite-sex bathrooms.

Second is the Vital Statistics Modernization Act, AB 433, which makes it that much easier for transgender people to update their California birth certificate. The bill updates a section of California's Health and Safety code that was last changed the previous time Brown served as governor.

The bill does two things. First " in line with a California appeals court ruling in 2009 " it allows for transgender people who were born in California to change their birth certificates without having to be current California state residents.

The other, and more important, part of AB 433 is allowing transgender people to simply get a medical certification from a physician indicating that the transperson in question has undergone treatment. While at first blush this doesn't seem a big step, it is important to note that said treatment does not need to include genital reconstruction surgery.

That is huge. For many, surgery is not a desired option. This is particularly the case for female to male transsexuals, for whom surgery is exorbitantly expansive and not often desired due to the potential results. But there can be good reasons across the board. Likewise, someone may well be planning for surgery at a later date, but be unable to complete it at a time when they might actually need their birth certificate to reflect their gender identity.

Transgender people and others have made it clear over the decades that their genitals and the configuration of same do not define them; the presence or absence of a penis does not have the singular ability to determine if one is male or female " nor should it. This bill makes that even clearer in California law.

Perhaps one of the bigger stories in the passage of the Gender Non-Discrimination Act and the Vital Statistics Modernization Act is how much of a non-story they were in the traditional media outlets. Much more attention was paid to Brown signing the Dream Act, AB 130, which allows illegal immigrants to apply for financial aid and merit-based scholarships, as well as his signing AB 376, a ban on the sale, trade, and possession of shark fins.

While the larger California LGBT legal organizations such as Equality California and the Transgender Law Center did indeed issue press releases and fact sheets, the major news media largely ignored the bills. This at a time when the ongoing fight for marriage rights can still be front page news " and on the lips of the 2012 presidential contenders. Ditto in a year when other transgender rights bills have faced vocal opposition from hard right factions.

Perhaps thy just assume this issue to be a lost cause in California, a state where transgender people have been able to change our name and gender on state driver's licenses since the 1970s, and where transgender civil rights have been pushed along many times since. Or perhaps this is part of a larger sea change in the way transgender people are being looked at on the public eye, particularly in a world where a transgender man is piped into living rooms across the nation each week.

Regardless, it is still interesting to me that these victories did not receive that much attention outside of the obvious community sources.

I should also add that while I'm very glad to see these passed, I couldn't help but look to the future. Perhaps we can see other states follow California's " and for that matter, the U.S. State Department's " template for gender marker updating without surgical intervention.

Likewise, while I think AB 433 is great as it is, perhaps we should begin to look at the possibility of moving beyond gender markers, and considering allowing one to " at the very least " decline to state a gender on some, if not all, state documents.

If anything, though, I can look at this as a far cry from the lean years under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, or even the not-quite-but-almost-as-lean years under Governor Gray Davis. It is good to see progress, especially progress as big as the Vital Statistics Modernization Act and Gender Non-Discrimination Act.

It's change, and good change. It's movement forward, and a recognition of the rights of all Californians, including those whose gender expression and identity are perhaps a bit more involved than others. For that, I have to salute the governor and all others who made this happen.

Gwen Smith grew up with Brown in office. You can find her online at