A Tallahassee judge has ordered Florida health administrators to change the birth certificate of a Broward teenager from “female” to “male,” potentially ending a long-simmering dispute between the Department of Health and advocates for transgender children who want their permanent records to reflect their current reality.
Wednesday’s order by Leon Circuit Judge Karen Gievers was welcome news to the 15-year-old in Broward and his family, but also to other Florida youths who may seek similar relief from the health department, said the teen’s lawyer, John B. “Jay” Rosenquest IV of Miami. The order may be the first of its kind since health administrators ceased amending the gender of birth certificates for transgender youths a few years ago, he said.
The teen’s mom was at a grocery store when she was told about the order. “I just literally had to find a quiet place, stand there for a minute, and let it wash over me,” she said. “It was just such a relief. I just felt so grateful that we were one step closer to getting this for our child. We are overjoyed, very overjoyed, very relieved, very grateful.”
The Miami Herald is not naming the youth or his family, as Gievers has ordered that the teen’s identity remain confidential.
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The order actually reaffirmed another judge’s ruling in Fort Lauderdale. After the initial ruling in Broward favoring the teenager by Circuit Judge Renee Goldenberg, the state filed a “declaratory judgment petition” in Tallahassee to determine whether the health department had the legal authority to do what the judge had told it to do. Such matters are often decided in Tallahassee courtrooms.
Gievers said the state indeed had the authority and must exercise it.
“The Department of Health remains obligated to expeditiously comply with Judge Goldenberg’s October 6, 2015 order,” Gievers wrote.
Though Gievers’ ruling marks the second time a state judge has ordered the Department of Health to amend the teen’s birth certificate — or third, as Goldenberg declined a department request that she vacate her original order — administrators have yet to determine whether they will comply or appeal again.
When asked how the health department intended to respond, a spokeswoman, Mara Gambineri, wrote in an email that “DOH has received Judge Gievers’ order and we are reviewing it.”
Though health administrators routinely amend birth certificates to reflect new names for transgender adults and children, the health department has, in recent years, refused to amend what are called “gender markers” — or the box that reflects a person’s sex — for minors. The department has insisted that people undergo gender reassignment surgery in order to qualify for such an amendment. But doctors are particularly loath to perform such surgery on adolescents.
It was just such a relief. I just felt so grateful that we were one step closer to getting this for our child. We are overjoyed, very overjoyed, very relieved, very grateful.
Mother of Broward teen
The conflict between health administrators and advocates for transgender youth arose at a crucial time for the LGBT community, said Rosenquest. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional state bans on same-sex marriage, and some state lawmakers were beginning to sponsor legislation that appeared to target gay and transgender people.
Lawmakers in at least seven states have debated the passage of so-called “bathroom bills,” some of which would have required people to use only the restroom that matched the sex on their birth certificate. In March, North Carolina approved one such law, House Bill 2, which generated an enormous backlash, and a federal civil rights lawsuit. Earlier this month, the top administrator of college sports, the NCAA, announced it would relocate seven previously approved championship games from the state.
The debate over birth certificates can have significant practical consequences: The mother of the 15-year-old at the center of Gievers’ order said that, in one year, her son likely would seek a driver’s license. She considers it his choice as to when, and to whom, he discloses his status. But if his driver’s license and physical appearance are at odds, the youth might face unwanted questions, or discrimination.
“How many times are you asked for your driver’s license? It has a gender marker on it,” the mother said. “It just seems wrong to us. These kids suffer enough just transitioning. Don’t make them suffer any more by not having a birth certificate that accurately reflects their gender.”
The teen’s parents realized when he was only 3 that his orientation to gender roles was not traditional. He liked typically male toys, and behaved with more masculine mannerisms. “He would scream, literally scream, if we put him in a dress. We did not know why at the time.”
The youth began to suffer over his situation around the seventh grade, his mother said. Normally an excellent student in gifted classes, his grades began to dip. He began to show signs of a serious depression. The child’s parents later realized he was struggling with whether to come out to them, but was afraid they would judge him harshly. The youth apparently had educated himself through the internet, reading cautionary tales about parents who refused to support their children.
“He was sobbing,” the mother said, “and thought we would throw him out of the house.” He had somehow convinced himself he would end up “living on the street, or living behind a Dumpster.”
Over time, the youth realized his parents only wanted to help him, his mother said, and his grades and mental health improved. But there was an additional challenge. He still had to confront his feelings about living his life as a male — and to disclose those feelings to his parents. That happened with the help of the YES Institute, an initiative in Miami that offers a research-based curriculum on gender issues, and support to youths struggling to accept themselves, his mom said.
The child’s mother said both she and her husband were not particularly sensitive — yet — to what it meant to be transgender. “I thought it was more about guys dressing up for a drag show,” the mother said. “I had zero concept about what it really meant. I had to educate myself.”
As the youth transitioned into the male gender, the family had to make decisions: Should he remain at the same school? What role should administrators play in easing the transition? The teen made his own choices.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’ve been to this school too long, and I believe I have a right to graduate from this school.’ We were just astonished by what this kid goes through every day — and rises above. We’re very proud of him.”
These days, the youth volunteers with support groups for other transgender children, his mother said. The teen understands the significance of his court battle, but his family doesn’t dwell on it. “We are relieved that finally, finally there’s a chance for his birth certificate to accurately reflect his name and gender, as it should be,” the mother said.
“If the state decides to appeal, so be it. We will continue to fight for justice for our child.”