When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States, Robin Lovett and Lee Owen were ecstatic. They’ve been a couple for about two years, and while they aren’t currently engaged, marriage is a future possibility. Still, many people who know the couple had no idea the same-sex marriage decision affected them. That’s because Robin is a cisgendered bisexual girl, and Lee is a bisexual trans guy. In Tennessee, where both of them were born and raised, this means that Lee is legally barred from amending his birth certificate to reflect his male gender identity, despite living as man, and despite the fact that many of the people who know him are unaware of his trans status.
“We’re a nice boy-girl couple. We go to church together, we do community service together, we’re the kind of couple conservatives want to see married,” Robin explained, smiling wryly.
There are only four U.S. states in which transgender men and women are prevented from changing the gender designation on their birth certificate. (According to Lambda Legal, the other three are Idaho, Kansas, and Ohio.) Some trans people in these states may be able to change the gender marker on other forms of identification, such as a driver’s license, but the prohibition on changes to birth certificates can cause complications in many common situations where a birth certificate is the document most commonly used to establish U.S. citizenship, and it may be necessary in order to start a new job. While, in theory, the gender marked on a birth certificate is of historic interest only, in practice, gender mismatches between documents can lead to all sorts of bureaucratic headaches. Trans individuals whose paperwork does not “match” may open themselves up to discrimination or to suspicion of identity fraud. Until the June 26 Supreme Court decision, in Tennessee, the gender on a person’s birth certificate determined whom they were and were not legally allowed to marry.
Among the four states that don’t permit gender changes to birth certificates, Tennessee has the dubious distinction of being the only one that has written the ban into law. (The Tennessee Code states, “The sex of an individual will not be changed on the original certificate of birth as a result of sex change”). “Tennessee is the only state with a law against changing the gender on a birth certificate,” Marisa Richmond, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, explained in a phone interview. “The other states have policy bans only. We’ve had several attempts to repeal the ban, but so far we haven’t passed it.”
Richmond’s last point is a bit of an understatement. The Tennessee legislature is overwhelmingly Republican, and while there have been earlier attempts to introduce a bill repealing the statute, the TTPC currently lacks any sponsors for such an effort, as the sponsors they recruited in previous sessions have all lost their seats, Richmond tells me. It seems that in the current climate, the chances of changing this regressive law are pretty slim.
The upshot of all this is that, at least in Tennessee, “same-sex” marriage rights have also been a huge relief to the transgender community, many of whom could not get married otherwise. “People who could not get married at all can now marry because their birth certificate markers indicate they are the same sex as their partners,” said Bear Rodgers, founder and facilitator of KnoxBoyz & KnoxGirlz of East Tennessee, a support and advocacy organization for transgender individuals.
For Lee Owen, this development came with some mixed feelings. “It was really fun and cool to celebrate with everyone, and it’s great that I don’t have to base my decisions about marriage on [the legal status of trans people in Tennessee], but it was also really weird celebrating, because I don’t think people even knew that it was a thing that would affect me personally,” he explained.
“It felt great, but it didn’t feel like it was recognition for us,” added Lovett. Here’s hoping that a fuller recognition of the needs of transgender Tennesseans is in the state’s future.