SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah Supreme Court decision Thursday in Salt Lake City makes clear that transgender people may amend birth certificates, driver's licenses and other state records to match the sex with which they identify.
The 4-1 ruling comes after more than three years in court and failed attempts by the Utah Legislature to both clarify a longstanding law regarding name and gender changes and to block transgender Utahns from amending their birth certificates.
"A person has a common-law right to change facets of their personal legal status, including their sex designation," Justice Deno Himonas wrote in the majority opinion. Justices John Pearce and Paige Petersen concurred. Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote a separate opinion that concurred in part and dissented in part with the majority. Justice Tom Lee was the lone dissenter.
LGBTQ advocates in Utah lauded the court's decision.
"Transgender Utahns breathe a sigh of relief today after the Utah Supreme Court affirmed our right to update our legal gender markers. Many of your neighbors have been denied this right or languished in legal limbo for too long," said Candice Metzler, Transgender Education Advocates of Utah executive director.
In 2016, a 2nd District Court judge in Ogden refused to grant petitions from Angie Rice, a transgender woman, and Sean Childers-Gray, a transgender man, to legally change the gender on their birth certificates to match their gender identity.
A person has a common-law right to change facets of their personal legal status, including their sex designation.
–Justice Deno Himonas
Rice and Childers-Gray appealed, and the Supreme Court has sat on the case since hearing oral arguments in January 2018. At the time, some judges routinely granted the gender change applications, while others routinely denied them.
Himonas noted that state law says that when "a person born in this state has a name change or sex change approved by an order of a Utah district court," they can file an application with the state registrar to change their birth certificate. If the application is complete, the registrar must change the sex on the document.
Himonas wrote that the Ogden judge was wrong to deny the petition based on the supposition that such matters are purely a legislative prerogative.
"The adjudication of sex-change petitions lies squarely within the power granted to Utah courts by the Utah Constitution. Our district courts have the authority to adjudicate such petitions without any constitutional impediment," Himonas wrote.
Under the ruling, a person must show that the gender change petition isn't made for any wrongful or fraudulent purpose and contains evidence reflecting the person's identity, including appropriate clinical care or treatment for gender transitioning or change provided by a licensed medical professional.
Himonas wrote in the decision that Rice and Childers-Gray have met those requirements, and orders the 2nd District judge to grant their petitions.
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.
–Robert Moolman, Utah Pride Center
Robert Moolman, Utah Pride Center executive director and CEO, said the prolonged case has "devalued and deferred" the lives of Rice and Childers-Gray.
"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," he said in a statement. "As a result, they may face ridicule, discrimination or violence. 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."
Metzler said the ruling "rekindles a sense of hope" for transgender Utahns to feel more included in society.
A driver's license or ID with the wrong gender forces a transgender person to out themselves on a daily basis, putting them at risk for ridicule, discrimination and violence, according to Metzler. The difficulties of navigating public spaces with outdated documents often isolate transgender people.
In his dissent, Lee wrote that decisions on the state's law regarding change petitions lies with the Legislature, not the courts. For decades, the law has provided for a court order to amend a birth certificate's "sex" designation. He wrote that has been understood to mean biological sex based on physical evidence at birth.
But Rice and Childers-Gray want the court to transform a designation of biological sex into a designation of gender identity.
"Since 1975 our Utah law has provided for the issuance of a court order for the amendment of the designation of a person's 'sex' on a birth certificate. This is a plain reference to biological sex. It is not an invitation for judicial development of an evolved standard of 'gender identity,'" he wrote.
Chris Wharton, an attorney for Rice and Childers-Gray, said the ruling makes clear what the standards are for all gender change cases statewide.
A vast majority of state judges were already applying the standards that the Supreme Court adopted, but some were not. He said cases should be decided on their merits, not what county the person lives in or what judge is assigned the case.
"It did not create new law," Wharton said.
Just as common law has allowed people to walk into a courthouse to legally change their names, the ruling clarifies that those seeking to amend their gender may do the same.