TV & Radio
Being transgender no longer about surgery in NY
By Daniel Trotta
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Jay Kallio knew at age 4. For Justine Nicholas, the revelation came in kindergarten. Nature had dealt them a confusing anatomy. The genders they were assigned at birth were all wrong.
Now New York City is helping transgender people assume their true identities, proposing changes in the law so they can change the sex on their birth certificates without sex reassignment surgery.
As adults, Jay and Justine have made the transition and live as the other sex, but Jay cannot have the operation for medical reasons. Justine wants to have hers in two years.
The change will allow transgender people to acquire identity documents such as passports that match the way they live. Perhaps just as importantly, official recognition can help a small, stigmatized minority achieve personal and public acceptance.
The proposal goes before the board of health in December.
"I recall being 4 years old and having a profound conviction that some terrible mistake had happened at my birth. I always felt I was a boy," said Jay, 51, who was born female with the name Joy but has been living full-time as a man -- Jay -- since January.
"I wanted to grow up to be a man. It was probably my first prayer: God, if I'm good enough, will you make me into a boy," said Jay, a freelance medical writer and auxiliary officer with the New York Police Department.
Transgender people have discovered they may need only hormone treatments or nothing at all to live in their acquired gender. Many dislike the psychological term gender identity disorder because it suggests something is wrong. Others simply cannot afford a sex-change operation.
"In kindergarten, when we were divided into boys and girls, I got on the girls' line. I said, 'This is where I belong,"' said Justine, 48, who has been living as a woman for four years.
"Those of us who are transgender feel like we're being dishonest when we are living as the gender we were assigned at birth," the college English teacher said.
THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY
Jay and Justine, who are acquaintances, would not be directly affected by the law because they were born outside New York City. But they say their stories show why the law is needed.
Justine once interviewed for a job as a woman and was asked to show identification. She pretended not to have any and promised to bring it back later. She never did. Later she decided to interview as a man, found a job at a city university, and transitioned to a woman between semesters.
Experts have no idea what percentage of the population is transgender, though it is generally regarded as below 1 percent.
"We get this question all the time as if it's OK for the government to discriminate because there are so few of them," said Paisley Currah, a transgender man who served on the city's panel of experts that helped draft the proposal.
"How small a group is shouldn't be a rationale for allowing them to be treated badly," Currah said.
Eight states plus 93 local jurisdictions have transgender anti-discrimination laws, and it is commonly remarked that the state of transgender rights is where gay and lesbian rights were 30 years ago.
The law on the books in New York City since 1971 requires "convertive" surgery before a transgender person born in the city can have his or her birth certificate changed, and even then the newly issued document omits a gender designation.
That was a breakthrough for transgender rights in 1971 but now is widely seen as out of date.
WHAT IS TRANSGENDER?
Transgender is an expansive term that can include anyone from cross-dressers to those have who have had gender reassignment surgery to anyone in between, such as "gender queers," the preferred term for young, androgynous people.
Not surprisingly, the proposed change in the New York law has been controversial. Transgender advocates say it imposes too many restrictions, such as requiring the person to change his or her name in order to receive a new birth certificate. Opponents are concerned about the possibilities for fraud.
"It could be a better policy in an ideal world but it's the best in the country," said Currah, who kept his given name Paisley after making the transition from woman to man.
Others say the law merely brings New York City up to date while transgender people in most of the country remain victims of discrimination, often subject to violence.
Said Justine: "I may not live to see such a society where we are completely equal."