Utah Supreme Court rules in favor of transgender marker cases

Forty months ago, two transgender Weber County residents went to the Utah Supreme Court after being denied gender marker changes on their birth certificates. Judges across the state routinely grant such changes, but Second District Judge Noel Hyde ruled in both cases that Utah law was not specific enough for him to rule in favor of the changes.

The Court ruled May 6 that appellants Angie Rice, a transgender woman, and Sean Childers-Gray, a transgender man, can modify their driver licenses, birth certificates, and other state documents to reflect the gender with which they identify, saying the judge who declined their initial request based his decision on “a legal mistake.”

Lawyer Christopher Wharton, who represented Rice and Childers-Gray in the appeal, said this was a victory for all transgender Utahns, as well as those who are intersex and nonbinary.

“It makes clear the role of the judiciary is to rule on the petitions that come before them and to rule on them on the merits,” he said. “This means that any client, anywhere in the state of Utah, who wants to have their name and gender change, that decision will be made on the merits and it’s not going to be based on which county they live in or which judge gets assigned to their case.”

Wharton represented Rice while she was first working through the legal system to get a judge’s approval to change state documents to reflect her gender identity. Childers-Gray attempted the process on his own, and was referred to Wharton in the final stages. Wharton said he’s successfully represented dozens of people in the process, but only Second District Judge Noel Hyde deny the requests.

Wharton then decided that their cases would be the perfect ones to appeal to the Utah Supreme Court to “get clarity on this very important question.”

The Court heard arguments on the appeal in January of 2018. Such a long waiting time was unusual, Wharton said.

“Most appellate cases take about six months to get resolved,” Wharton said. “But in this case, it appeared that one judge’s concerns that there was no opposing party in the appeal stalled the proceedings.”

Wharton said that they approached the Supreme Court asking for them to rule that what the vast majority of judges throughout the state were using as a “near-uniform” standard to decide on the individual cases.

Rice and Childers-Gray both said that the long wait for the ruling was emotionally taxing and neither were sure that the day would ever come.

According to the court ruling, in denying a petition for a change of legal sex designations, because the court supposed such a decision was a legislative prerogative that “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.”

“Today, we provide a plain-meaning interpretation of the duly enacted law allowing individuals to change their sex
designations. In the process, we explain that Mr. Childers-Gray and Ms. Rice met the requirements—articulated by us today but rooted in common law and applied by Utah district courts and other authorities—for their sex-change petitions to be approved,” Justice Himonas wrote in his opinion.

“The Utah Fair Housing Act addresses how one can show their gender identity: A person‘s gender identity can be shown by providing evidence, including, but not limited to, medical history, care or treatment of the gender identity, consistent and uniform assertion of the gender identity, or other evidence that the gender identity is sincerely held, part of a person‘s core identity, and not being asserted for an improper purpose,” the ruling of the court reads.

Judge Hyde wrote while denying Sean Childers-Gray his gender marker change in December of 2016, that Utah law was not specific enough to allow a judge to rule in favor of a gender marker change.

“Regardless of the sincerity or intensity of the desire of any individual to display any particular physical appearance, some biological facts are not subject to voluntary modification,”

The Supreme Court then remanded the cases back to the District Court, ordering it to “approve the sex designation changes.”

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