HELENA — Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee forwarded a bill Thursday that would increase requirements for a transgender person to change the gender listed on their birth certificate. 

Senate Bill 280, introduced by Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Columbia Falls, would reverse a 2017 administrative rule enacted under the previous administration of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. That alteration made it easier for transgender Montanans to change the gender designation on their birth certificate to align with their gender identity, as opposed to the designation listed when they were born.

Glimm’s bill would implement new restrictions for that process. As written, the legislation requires that a transgender person submit a court order confirming that the individual has undergone gender-affirmation surgery.

“[The Department of Public Health and Human Services] started to promulgate a rule that would allow someone to change their birth certificate,” Glimm said in his remarks to lawmakers on Thursday, referring to the 2017 change. “[This bill is] a reset. It brings us back to the way it was before.”

Glimm, along with proponent Jeff Laszloffy of the Christian conservative group the Montana Family Foundation, also noted that the change was enacted through an administrative procedure within the Department of Public Health and Human Services, rather than via legislation. Making policy through a rule change, both said, was improper.

“This was an incursion into the legislative process by a state agency. If the agency truly believes the policy and process surrounding birth certificates needs to be amended, then they can ask a legislator to bring a bill just like everyone else,” said Laszloffy, the only person who offered public testimony in support of the bill Thursday.

Opponents pushed back on the characterization that DPHHS overstepped when it exercised the standard rulemaking process available to state departments. 

“There’s over a month available for public comment. That public comment was utilized by the public,” said SK Rossi, a lobbyist representing the cities of Bozeman and Missoula. “And I just want to point out that the comments that were given to DPHHS during this rulemaking process were overwhelmingly in support of the rule change that’s being discussed today, just like this bill before you will have overwhelming opposition.”

Nearly a dozen people spoke against the bill, explaining how changing the gender designation on one’s birth certificate can be a crucial step toward improving stability and safety for transgender people. 

Kyndra Nevin, who served as the project coordinator for a peer-reviewed study called the Rural Transgender Wellness Project, spoke about interviews she had conducted with trans people across Montana. 

“What emerged as one of the most consistent determinants of well-being and success for those in the study was the ability to transition and live as the gender they know themselves to be,” she said. “As any empathetic person understands, the ability to participate in society and the sense of belonging that comes with that is very important to personal feelings of worth and security.”

Other opponents shared personal stories, particularly about how updating a birth certificate can protect a person from discrimination and possible attacks that may happen if someone discovers they are transgender. 

“The sexual assault and homicide rate against transgender people, and especially against transgender women of color, is the highest in the country,” said Shawn Reagor, a lobbyist for the Montana Human Rights Network. “Oftentimes, our ability to obtain a job, housing or public services and to even stay alive is contingent on our ability to maintain private, medically relevant information. Having a birth certificate that doesn’t match your gender identity or how the world sees you is extremely dangerous.”

When answering questions for the committee, Reagor explained that many transgender people never decide to proceed with a gender-affirming surgery, a fact he said makes the surgical requirements of SB 280 an invasion of privacy.

“Just to be clear, in order to change your Social Security card, in order to update your driver’s license in the state of Montana, in order to obtain a passport, you do not have to have surgery,” he said. “So the fact that the state of Montana is now is considering taking this rule back to the ’70s, when it was originally written, is extremely detrimental.”

Democratic lawmakers on the committee, in questions to proponents, asked why the change of law suggested by SB 280 was even necessary.

“Sen. Glimm, I’ve just got to ask you: What aspect of trans people being able to put their accurate gender on their birth certificate and live their lives fully and authentically — how does that negatively affect your life in any way at all?” asked Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula.

“It doesn’t, but … if you will notice that the title of the bill is ‘vital statistics,’” Glimm said. “And statistics have to do with facts. And when your birth certificate is done, the facts are written on there, where you were born, the way you were born and the sex of the baby. And those are important items to document, and we use them all the time in statistics.”

In comments before the committee voted, Bennett rejected the heart of Glimm’s response.

“I’m just going to be fully honest and say this is a pretty gross attack on transgender people,” Bennett said. “I’m not going to let this committee for a half-second pretend that this is a statistics bill, because it’s not. If it were, we’d have people from the Bureau of Statistics in here saying, ‘we desperately need this information.’ They weren’t, because it’s not important. The reason this bill is here is because people don’t want transgender folks to have these rights.”

Republicans on the committee disagreed and voiced their support for Glimm’s measure.

“I think it is extremely important that we do keep vital statistics accurate for the purposes of, you know, criminal behavior,” said Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville. “If someone’s committed a crime, you need to know if you’re looking for a man or a woman. And this bill requires the person to have gone through the process of making a commitment to their new sex. And so for that reason, I appreciate the bill.”

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Whitefish, who chairs the committee, also explained his support, saying he believes the department should have pursued the change through legislation as opposed to an administrative rule.

The committee passed the bill in a 7-4 vote, along party lines. It has not yet been scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor. 

The bill is the latest in a number of proposals that would restrict rights and limit protections for LGBTQ people, specifically transgender and two-spirit Montanans. None of those bills have so far passed both chambers.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.