JUSTICE

Utah Supreme Court: Transgender people can alter birth certificates

May 6, 2021, 10:16 AM | Updated: May 9, 2021, 5:52 pm
Utah gender identify guidelines for schools...
The Utah State Board of Education said schools will determine their own policies on gender identity. Photo credit: Getty Images.

This story has been edited from its original version to correct a quote that was misattributed. 

SALT LAKE CITY — Transgender people in Utah may change their name or gender on their birth certificates, the state supreme court ruled Thursday

The case originated from two Utah residents who identify as transgender and wanted their birth certificates to reflect that. 

Government-issued documents, such as driver’s licenses and passports, would also be affected by the ruling on transgender birth certificates. 

Utah Supreme Court ruling on transgender birth certificates

The lawsuit that led to the ruling from the Utah Supreme Court came from Sean Childers-Gray and Angie Rice. Childers-Gray “is a transgender man who was assigned female at birth,” the court wrote. Rice is “a transgender woman who was assigned male at birth. Childers-Gray lives fully as a male and underwent hormone therapy to change “his voice, body hair growth, and breast tissue, and caused his female organs to no longer function;” Rice lives fully as a female, and also underwent hormone therapy. 

Both requested to change their birth certificates to reflect the gender with which they identify. Lower courts approved the request to change their names, but not their genders. The Utah Supreme Court ruled in favor of Rice and Childers-Gray, based on a three-prong approach. 

  • The district court granted the name change requests and found no reason to deny them 
  • Childers-Gray and Rice met what the court laid out as an “objective medical standard,” providing letters from a doctor about their treatment and transition. 
  • The district court’s orders included a legal error — the reason for denying Rice’s application suggested only the legislature could decide what standards apply for such a request, but the reason for denying the request from Childers-Gray, just over a week earlier, “revealed ‘[u]nsupported generalizations’ and concerns—considerations that our case law strictly prohibits.” 

A long legal road 

The journey to the Utah Supreme Court stretches back more than three years. Justices heard arguments in the case in January 2018, issuing the ruling May 6, 2021. 

“This has been the longest standing case under advisement of the Utah Supreme Court and its length on the docket has devalued and deferred the plaintiff’s lives,” said Dr. Robert Moolman, CEO and Executive Director of the Utah Pride Center, in a statement. 

Justice Constandinos Himonas authored the opinion announcing the decision. Himonas wrote the lower court was wrong to deny Childers-Gray and Rice’s applications to change their birth certificates.  

“The district court was mistaken in its supposition. A person has a common-law right to change facets of their personal legal status, including their sex designation. In recognition of this right, the Utah legislature has statutorily declared that, as a matter of the public policy of this state, when ―a person born in this state has a name change or sex change approved by an order of a Utah district court,‖2 they can file such order with the state registrar with an application to change their birth certificate,” Himonas wrote. “If the registrar determines the application is complete, the registrar must change the sex on the person‘s birth certificate.”

Dissenting opinions

Chief Justice Matthew Durrant authored an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in the case. He criticized the second prong of the three-prong test used in the decision: 

But rather than requiring objective evidence of treatment as an independent second requirement, I would characterize such evidence as one category of evidence that may be employed by a petitioner in order to establish proper cause. And I would conclude that the two petitioners in the case before us have provided more than ample evidence, medical and otherwise, of proper cause. So I would not set forth a definitive minimum standard for what must be shown to establish proper cause by a petitioner seeking a sex change amendment to a birth certificate. The structure of section 26-2-11, which presupposes the authority of the court to issue name and sex change orders without providing a standard of proof, as well the legislature‘s use of the broad ―probable cause‖ standard in section 42-2-1 (which I argue is the most likely candidate for the legislature‘s intended standard for sex changes) both suggest a legislative intent that district court judges be accorded broad discretion with respect to these matters. I would allow the parameters of the scope and nature of the evidence necessary to establish proper cause under section 26-2-11 to develop over time, as district court judges exercise this broad discretion.

Reaction: Transgender rights upheld in Utah

The Utah Pride Center applauded the decision of the court to allow transgender Utah residents to change their birth certificates and other documents. 

“This ruling has a significant and profound impact on Utah’s transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming communities,” the organization said. 

Its executive director, Moolman, said the decision means a safe future for many Utahns.

“Being denied the right to update their legal gender marker forces transgender, intersex, non-binary and gender nonconforming individuals to out themselves before they’re ready. As a result, they may face ridicule, discrimination or violence,” Moolman said. “We congratulate Angie and Sean for having the courage and the stamina to take on this fight which will have an immensely positive impact on a minority population.” 

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Utah Supreme Court: Transgender people can alter birth certificates