In March 1978, “G.H.” appeared before Judge Willard I. Walker in the Circuit Court in Richmond, Virginia with a request for an order changing the sex designation on her birth certificate from male to female. According to Walker and others at the court, the request by the trans woman was the first of its kind in Richmond.
Yet, even in 1978, the issue was not then new – not even in Virginia.
The Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics indicated that requests had been received from elsewhere in the state and around the country. Presumably, such administrative requests were accompanied by court orders from other jurisdictions. The Bureau indicated it had not wanted “to be in a position to judge the sex of an individual” in G.H.’s case, Walker told the Richmond News-Leader. “I guess that’s essentially what I was asked to do.”
A year later, Walker made news in another change case – a name change case not involving sex designation. He was willing to grant religion-based name-change requests to inmates while other judges would not. “The contacts I’ve had with corrections [department] people and a Muslim priest indicate it’s probably highly desirable that the name changes are being made and are being done for religious reasons,” Walker said.
Court administrators took a different view.
“I think it’s kind of like joining a little club,” said Ronald R. Belton, chief deputy clerk of the Division I Courts in Richmond. “It’s a little loophole that prisoners find in the system, and [they] abuse it.”
Even Walker agreed with that – once.
He had approved what was held out to be a religion-based name change request of Sandy Leake to Ydnas Ekeal, but rescinded it after learning that the prisoner’s new name was merely his old one spelled backward.
“I thought it was a damn joke,” Walker said. “I don’t know any religion, Muslim or otherwise, that has you spell your name backwards.”
But in 1978, Walker did approve G.H.’s request, despite expressing reluctance over viewing transsexuality as falling under existing Virginia statutory language governing errors made at the time of birth. But he ensured that her birth certificate would be marked as having been amended, so it clearly would indicate that her birth sex designation had in the past been male.
Presumably, she would thereafter have been able to marry her male fiancé (even though Walker consciously avoided opining on the topic of marriage), but her birth certificate would always have the potential to out her even if other identification secured pursuant to it did not.
Whether it ever did or not, is not known.
I do know, however, that because decisions from Walker’s court never found themselves officially published in the South Eastern Reporter, the decision in G.H.’s case could never serve as a positive precedent to the same degree that Ohio’s In re Ladrach has been able to serve as a negative precedent.
I also know that a year after G.H.’s court date, Virginia enacted a trans birth certificate statute.
It came as part of a comprehensive revision of its vital statistics framework which included language clearly contemplating those in G.H.’s situation – and it experienced minimal legislative opposition. The Senate floor votes, including procedural ones, were 39-0 and 40-0. The only opposition to the bill occurred in the House, where the vote was 77-17, and even those no votes appear not to have been because of the trans provision.
Ironically, that bill became law mere weeks before Los Angeles enacted a trans-inclusive civil rights ordinance, making it the most populous jurisdiction in the nation at the time with a gay rights law – and, in turn, meaning that the largest jurisdiction in the nation with a gay rights law had a trans-inclusive one.
And that’s connected to Virginia how?
A gay rights proposal in Alexandria in 1984 saw advocacy by a cis gay man for a “short, precise and clear” definition for “sexual orientation,” one that only encompassed heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. The same man specifically advocated against a “quite ornate” definition of the term—the one in the Los Angeles ordinance (which had come from Minnesota).
Alexandria didn’t enact an ordinance that year. But when it did, in 1988, it was, shall we say, not ornate.
It still isn’t.
Thanks to Democratic majorities in both houses of its legislature and a Democratic governor, Virginia is on the cusp of becoming the first southern state to provide all of its LGBTQ residents an enforceable right of redress against bigotry that manifests itself as discrimination. And a bill is also moving forward to modernize Virginia’s trans birth certificate statute.
But we should not forget the 1979 incarnation of it (as some purported histories have).
Over the course of the ensuing forty years, Virginia suffered through the likes of Liberty ‘University,’ Bob McDonnell, Regent ‘University,’ George ‘Macaca’ Allen, and ‘Public Advocate of the United States’ Eugene Delgaudio.
And over the course of those same forty years trans people throughout America were told – by people claiming to be our friends and allies – that we were just too much for the serious business of serious legislation.
All while the one element of Virginia law that was in any way positive for any LGBTQ Virginians was positive for trans Virginians.
Yes, Virginia is about to move forward into an LGBTQ future.
When it arrives, celebrate it. Celebrate Danica Roem and all of the other elected officials who will make it a reality.
But while doing so, remember the LGBTQ past. If we ever forget that, the prospects for an LGBT-positive future will quickly follow it into oblivion.