Ruled by Documents

Riding a wave of backlash to social and legal gains made by trans individuals and a misinformation campaign based on unfounded fears, North Carolina’s legislature hurriedly passed a sweeping, unprecedented anti-LGBT law.

The law overrides any laws at the local level to bring legal protections for LGBT individuals to parity with those already existing for race, religion and other protected categories. It also disallows anyone from using a public gendered bathroom incongruous with the gender as stated on their birth certificate. This manages to target the most vulnerable trans individuals of all, including trans children and low income trans people while also threatening the rights of the general population.

Legal gender, far from the coherent whole imagined by the cis (non-trans) public, lives in multiple different documents, which could contradict each other. Like most states, North Carolina requires genital reconstruction surgery before reissuing a birth certificate that properly reflects the gender the person lives as. This procedures isn’t done by a majority of trans individuals, in many cases because the individual simply has no desire to do so, in others because they can’t afford it and their insurance doesn’t cover it.

Virtually all trans children will not have done this procedure, though they may be enrolled in school as their authentic gender (again, the documents don’t necessarily agree). This elevates the importance of the birth certificate, as trans individuals are often able to live perfectly fine lives without amending it, changing only drivers licenses and other documents.

This requirement is inherently classist, as explained by Ramona Knives:

Having an expensive surgery done, paying for a new birth certificate and all other associated fees, and presenting it each time we dare to use a public restroom sounds like a lot of work for what should be an inalienable right no matter if you’re trans or cis. Any rational person could see that, but then again, the rich cis elite care less about rational thought and more about ensuring that the only trans people who could qualify would be the wealthy and more than likely cis-passing ones, whom they would probably not figure to be trans in the first place.

This piece of the law inherently excludes the poor, which accounts for a huge number of open trans people, and especially the homeless, who have to rely on public restrooms or risk arrest and possible death at the hands of police for urinating or defecating outside. These are the people hurt most by this law, and the domino effect of other classist laws ensure that they will get the worst of every discriminatory law passed in this country, while the Caitlyn Jenners of the states will tell us all about how #itgetsbetter.

And ironically, if you take the rhetoric more seriously than those who spout it take it themselves, it is also trans children who stand to be hurt greatly by the law. It is children who, in these transphobic horror stories of opportunistic men posing as trans women, we’re supposed to believe are at risk of predation. And yet it is these laws that will force trans girls to use the men’s restroom, as trans girls will certainly have birth certificates that says “male” at least until adulthood.

It’s difficult to say at this point how likely the potty police are to become a reality, but even the threat has real consequences.

In this respect, this law has echoes of the racist Arizona SB 1070.

Despite resulting in few actual instances of law enforcement officials invoking the law (perhaps because they already had enough authority to do as they please), there was a visible drop in immigrants seen in public places and using public facilities according to anecdotal evidence and also evidence that the Hispanic population dropped by about 100,000 individuals:

BBVA Bancomer Research, which did the study, worked with figures from the U.S. Current Population Survey. The study says the decline could be due to the law known as SB1070, which partly entered into effect in July, or to Arizona’s difficult economic situation.

In this case, the papers we’re expecting people to carry is unprecedented. Birth certificates may be required when applying for a passport but you aren’t required to have them on your person to leave the country, and yet anyone who doesn’t pass for cis, not just trans people, could have to carry this documentation. There have already been cases of cis people who don’t fit the mold in terms of gender presentation being harassed, proving that gender by its very nature isn’t intelligible.

Make no mistake, these laws aren’t designed to protect anyone’s safety. None of their proponents are losing sleep over the fact that they’re forcing trans girls to use the men’s room, and in fact they have invited a man to undress in women’s facilities in order to push their agenda. The intent is to terrorize trans people out of public places and fight back against their growing acceptance. Even without these laws taking effect, they play a role in harassment trans individuals receive.

But beyond just controlling trans people, this measure and the many across the country like it threaten all of our rights. It threatens to make a document a bigger part of our daily existence. It threatens anyone, not just trans people, who would present themselves in a way that would raise any doubts at all about their gender. It’s the wet dream of any traditionalist still upset that men can have long hair and women can wear pants. The key to laying oppressive laws and social mores on all is by starting with the most vulnerable.

In this way, we dig our graves with our own bigotry.

To be trans is, among other things, to have a document with unnecessary, false information haunt you. But it would benefit us all to end birth assignment as a legal and cultural practice altogether, rather than granting it new, unprecedented powers over us.

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