Federal Judge Upholds Tennessee Law Restricting Birth Certificate Changes

In a ruling issued last week, a federal judge upheld a 1977 Tennessee state law, thwarting a group of transgender plaintiffs who sought to alter their birth certificates to mirror their gender identity. The decision came in a lawsuit filed in 2019, which contested the statute that had stood unchallenged for over four decades.

U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson dismissed the suit, reinforcing the longstanding definitions of “male” and “female” as pertaining to birth certificates – “external genitalia at birth.” He emphasized that the lawsuit was a “discrete legal dispute over the constitutionality of a specific alleged policy” related to birth certificates, not a broader dialogue about transgender rights in Tennessee or the United States.

The plaintiffs, represented by Lambda Legal, asserted that the existing policy was discriminatory, arguing that a mismatch between the biological gender on their birth certificate and their chosen gender identity might expose them to potential harassment or violence. They also contended that the statute violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses.

In his ruling, Judge Richardson underlined that the law doesn’t prevent individuals from openly declaring their gender identity, regardless of the denomination on their birth certificate. He clarified that the label of “male” or “female” on the certificate, determined by the appearance at birth, does not turn inaccurate should the person’s gender identity diverge in later life.

Reacting to the verdict, the plaintiffs expressed their disappointment and devastation, highlighting the law’s perceived challenge for transgender Tennesseans. They stressed the importance of government recognition and insisted they deserved the same dignity as their fellow citizens. Yet, Judge Richardson’s judgment stood on legal precedence and constitutional interpretation, not on the broader societal debates or political battles.

Lambda Legal Counsel Omar Gonzalez-Pagan criticized the ruling, calling birth certificates “the quintessential identity document.” He criticized the policy for supposedly forcing transgender Tennesseans to use a state-issued document inconsistent with their identity. The organization is reportedly currently evaluating a potential appeal of the ruling.

When the lawsuit was filed in 2019, Tennessee was one of three states prohibiting gender designation changes on birth certificates. Since then, federal courts in the other two states, Kansas and Ohio, have deemed those policies unconstitutional. Since then, some states like Montana, North Dakota, and Oklahoma have adopted laws similar to Tennessee’s.

While the latest ruling has certainly sparked disappointment among those plaintiffs and their advocates, it has underscored the constitutionality of defining gender based on biological traits at birth. The court decision neither invalidates the lived experiences of those who identify as transgender nor impedes their right to self-identify their gender. The ruling upholds the longstanding norm of aligning gender with one’s natural state at birth.