Opponents show up in force to challenge new health department birth certificate rule

More than 200 people tuned in to Thursday’s meeting held via Zoom which lasted nearly three hours.

By: - June 30, 2022 5:29 pm

A large group gathers at the Montana Capitol on March 15, 2021 during a LGBTQ rally (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

Opponents testifying against an emergency rule from the state health department that would bar transgender Montanans from changing the sex designation on their birth certificate far outweighed supporters during a lengthy public hearing on Thursday.

Around 100 people, including transgender Montanans, transgender rights activists, parents, teachers, faith leaders and medical professionals, testified against the emergency rule the state is attempting to make permanent. One person spoke in favor of it, and more than 200 people tuned into the meeting held via Zoom which lasted nearly three hours.

The rule would allow Montanans to change the gender marker on their birth certificate only in the case of a clerical error or when DNA testing proves that sex is wrong on the document.

Annie Belcourt, a Native American professor in the College of Health at the University of Montana, testified on behalf of herself and her family Thursday against the emergency rule.

“As the parent of a trans child, I can tell you that it is quite simply devastating for our family and for my child to see our state actively try to attack my child and my child’s rights through what I see as really state-sponsored hate,” she said.

Belcourt also presented a statement that her child shared with her:

“I am a transgender male. And I can say for all trans people that we have had it hard enough already, without banning our basic rights … What do we do to make you hate us so much? We are normal people that are just born in the wrong bodies,” she said on behalf of her son. “We want to feel like the people we really are. And we want to have people stop changing our lives and prevent our happiness even more.”

Thursday’s hearing is the latest development in the birth certificate saga that stems from a lawsuit from the ACLU that challenged a new law introduced in the 2021 legislative session. The recently challenged law, or Senate Bill 280, said Montanans can only update the gender marker on their birth certificate after a surgical procedure and court order. 

In April, Yellowstone County District Judge Michael Moses placed a preliminary injunction on the law, saying it was unconstitutionally vague, and prevented the state from enforcing it while litigation played out.

The preliminary injunction directed Montana to revert to a 2017 rule that allowed Montanans to change the sex designation on their birth certificate through an affidavit and online form. The ACLU argued the new rule unlawfully conflicted with Moses’ order.

DPHHS spokesperson, Jon Ebelt did not comment on the content of Thursday’s meeting but noted the agency is still in the public comment period, which ends on July 8. After the public comment period is closed, he said DPHHS will review the comments and decide what action to take.

“Today’s public hearing gave Montanans the opportunity to comment on the proposed rule. We encourage public participation in this process. The Department continues to receive written comments,” he wrote in an email to the Daily Montanan.

Willow Marvin Ramon spoke about the benefits of being able to change the gender marker on a birth certificate.

“For myself, having been able to change the gender marker on my birth certificate made processes like transitioning in the school system significantly easier and allowed for changing of records online so that substitute teachers could see my correct name and gender identifiers,” Ramon said. “And for people in the trans community, they might not be able to communicate or even understand what information goes on those documents until they are older. Therefore being able to change the information when more accurate information is discovered is very important.”

At the same time, Gwen Nicholson testified about the frustrations of being unable to update a birth certificate.

“This rule change came down just when I was finishing the process of changing my name and gender legally, I had to court order and everything to get my birth certificate updated, and that court order was denied and ignored. It’s left me unable to complete critical parts of that legal transition,” Nicholson said. “I feel that my civil rights have already been unduly limited and that the risk of discrimination and physical harm that I face in my life has been elevated because of a discriminatory rule that was adopted in direct contravention of the will of the people, legislative process and the judicial process.”

The hearing was reminiscent of debates during the past legislative session, where opponents of bills that they said dangerously impacted the transgender community showed up in large numbers to voice their concerns. However, the strong showing did not dissuade lawmakers from passing bills that limited how transgender youth can participate in sports, receive gender-affirming care or update their birth certificates. During debate on those bills, more than 4,500 people publicly voiced their opposition, and 1,720 publicly supported them.

Shawn Reagor, director of equality at the Montana Human Rights Network, said this time he hopes the state listens.

“Montanans have spoken again … LGBTQ+ community members and allies completely outnumbered opponents of equality at the hearing for the 2017 rule change, the hearing for SB 280 at the 2021 legislative session, and today’s hearing,” he said. “There is no reason for the state to act against the wishes of the public, especially when the benefits are immense, and public comments have decisively rejected the rule change.”

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.