Leslie Farber, an attorney in Montclair and B’nai Keshet member, recalled the expensive and arduous process one of her clients had to go through in order to change her gender designation on her birth certificate to reflect her new identity.
Because that client’s sexual reassignment surgery took place in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1968, medical records documenting the change were unavailable. Instead, she was forced to see a plastic surgeon specializing in the field who then certified to state agencies that her official documents should be changed.
“It was a long and expensive process,” Farber, a West Orange resident who herself is transgender, told NJJN. “It took about a year and a half. Some people just can’t afford it.”
But now, that process will be streamlined thanks to a new law easing restrictions on changing the gender designated on a birth certificate.
The “Babs Siperstein Law,” named for the transgender woman from Edison who spearheaded the drive to change the regulations, was signed into law July 3 by Gov. Phil Murphy. The new law also allows for a changed gender identity on death certificates and establishes a transgender equality task force.
“Allowing vital records to match gender identity is an important step forward that will allow transgender individuals to control the disclosure of their transgender status,” said Murphy in a statement. “And by creating a Transgender Equality Task Force, New Jersey can ensure that all residents receive the protections they deserve.
“New Jersey will continue to stand with our LGBTQ residents in the continued pursuit of similar rights nationwide.”
Having taken on many discrimination cases involving transgender people, Farber noted the new law will also help those who have elected not to go through reassignment surgery but identify with a gender different than the one noted on their birth certificate, as well as those who define themselves as non-binary gender — meaning they see themselves as neither male nor female.
“In terms of validation, a birth certificate determines who a person is,” said Nicole Brownstein of Morganville. “I am female in any way you want to mention it: physically, mentally, psychologically, and socially. Now I have a piece of paper that says officially I am a woman.
“It’s very important.”
Brownstein said she struggled four years ago to change the gender designation on her birth certificate. Born in New York City, she was required to provide certification from her surgeon, who was then contacted independently by a New York representative to ascertain everything Brownstein had said was correct.
But her home state “just leapfrogged over almost every other state” in streamlining the process of changing sexual identity on official documents, said Brownstein, who is Jewish. She is a former president of the Highland Park-based Pride Center of New Jersey — which offers support to the LGBTQ community — and she runs support groups for transgender individuals and their families.
Brownstein added that the new law will eliminate potential bureaucratic snafus in obtaining a host of official documents, including passports, which are issued based on information on birth certificates.
Having a passport is necessary to travel anywhere, said Brownstein, and “having a birth certificate with your new name and correct gender will make it a whole lot easier to obtain a passport.”
New Jersey has 30,050 people who identify as transgender, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.
Siperstein, who attended the bill signing, has a long history of lobbying for the rights of the transgender community. The first transgender person to serve on the Democratic National Committee, she is vice chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee and is director of the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey.
She is also an active member of NORPAC, the pro-Israel political action group for the metropolitan area, where, she said, she has been accepted by even its most religiously Jewish observant members.
“They enjoy having me there because I always look at things a little differently, and I have connections with a lot of politicians,” said Siperstein. Those are relationships she has cultivated for many years.
In 2009 she worked with the Motor Vehicle Commission to change the policy regarding gender designation on driver’s licenses.
Before 2009, Siperstein said, “you had to have shown you had the surgery before changing the gender marker” on driver’s licenses. Siperstein fought to simplify the process and make it more inclusive by requiring only that a medical professional had to sign a downloadable form.
Although such a law was already on the books in the District of Columbia and Massachusetts, Siperstein said, “we adapted what was done in those two jurisdictions and improved it, and New Jersey has more or less become the standard bearer for the rest of the country.”
Siperstein said she has been working on the new legislation for years, but ran into opposition from former Gov. Chris Christie, who vetoed the bill. In 2005, even liberal Democrats shied away from backing legislation amending the state’s anti-discrimination law to include the LGBTQ community, said Siperstein. The new legislation passed with significant Democratic and Republican support.
“Failure was not an option,” she said.
The passage of the legislation, she said, is the culmination of a lifetime of coming to terms with an identity she always knew was there.
“I led a double life for many, many years,” said the former Barry Siperstein, a third-generation owner of Siperstein’s paint store, once a large chain, founded in 1904 in Jersey City. “I came out to myself and my wife in the very late ’80s. That continued through the ’90s and into the 21st century.” Siperstein has three children and five grandchildren.
Siperstein was outed — accidentally — by The Star-Ledger in 2006. The Newark-based newspaper was covering an event for families sponsored by Garden State Equality, a gay rights advocacy organization. As vice chair of the group, Siperstein was there, appearing as a woman but using the pseudonym Barbra Casbar, a compilation of her wife’s initials and her former first name. But when the paper printed a photo of Siperstein’s daughter, identifying her as Casbar’s daughter, Siperstein’s true gender identity became known to employees and customers of the paint store, by then located in Fords.
However, she was pleasantly surprised to find neither her employees nor customers deserted her. In 2008 at age 65 in a ceremony at Conservative Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, where she is a former board member, Siperstein changed her Hebrew name from Eliezer Banish to Baila Chaya. Chaya had been the Hebrew name of her late wife, Carol, who had died seven years earlier after 34 years of marriage and had supported Siperstein through her journey.
Siperstein, a native of Jersey City, said, “I have had a strong Jewish identity since I was called a dirty Jew in the first grade.”
Brownstein, retired from a career in computer software services for a major corporation, now runs support groups for transgender individuals and their families in conjunction with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospitals in Somerset and New Brunswick. She has witnessed firsthand the traumatizing effect discrimination has had on transgender children.
“Everyone who transitions goes on a journey and everyone’s journey is different,” Brownstein said. “When someone transitions, they don’t transition alone; their whole family also transitions.”
Farber, who underwent transition surgery in 2006 in Montreal, declined to give her former name, but said she also had her Hebrew named changed in a private ceremony.
She was relieved, she said, that the “irrational fears” of opponents to changing the laws regarding gender designation on birth certificates have been put to rest.
“The last governor vetoed the legislation twice,” Farber said. “There were fears people would be switching on a whim, which is just not true. It just doesn’t happen.”