Transgender Utahns can list their gender identity on state records, ruling affirms

In a 4-1 vote, the court overturns district court rulings that barred two people from changing their sex on state records.

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angie Rice speaks at a press conference May 6, 2021, after the Utah Supreme Court ruled in her favor that allowed her and another transgender Utahn to list the sex to which they identify on their driver’s licenses and other state records.

After more than three years of waiting, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled that two transgender Utahns can list the sex to which they identify on their driver’s licenses and other state records — and that the judge who declined their initial request based his decision on “a legal mistake.”

The 4-1 ruling overturned a district court ruling that plaintiffs Sean Childers-Gray, a transgender man, and Angie Rice, a transgender woman, could not have their legal sex designations changed on state records.

The decision should ensure that transgender Utahns, no matter where they live in the state, will be able to ask a district court judge to add their correct gender to driver’s licenses and birth certificates. Prior to this ruling, some district court judges would grant the change the plaintiffs asked for and others wouldn’t.

“A person has a common-law right to change facets of their personal legal status, including their sex designation,” the opinion, written by Associate Justice Constandinos Himonas, stated. Associate justices John A. Pearce and Paige Petersen concurred; Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant wrote a separate opinion that concurred with most of Himonas’ opinion.

Rice, Childers-Gray and supporters gathered outside in the sun at the Matheson Courthouse for a news conference and to celebrate within hours of the court’s decision. The warm, spring day seemed to mirror speakers’ moods.

“If anybody has any complaints about the brilliance of this day in the sun, just talk to me after,” Rice joked.

Candice Metzler, with Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, told the crowd of supporters to soak in the feeling.

“I want to just take this moment today to just savor what a victory is like,” Metzler said, “because we’ve been in a pattern lately of seeing transgender people attacked and people arguing why we should exclude transgender people and gender diverse people from our communities and systems. Today is a win.”

An unusually long wait for a decision

Rice said it has been a hard several years for her and Childers-Gray. At times, she said, they almost lost hope, and sometimes she found it too painful to think about the case. Rice told the Salt Lake Tribune after the ruling was released that she was “emotionally overwhelmed,” in part because she wasn’t sure this day would ever come.

Thursday, however, she wanted to focus on the victory for her and Childers-Gray and any other transgender Utahns who want their state documents to match their gender identity.

“My life was going forward day by day sometimes is not easy,” Rice said, “But (this decision)... gives young people and everybody who has been suffering in silence, or victimized, it gives them a chance to believe in hope and have the courage to now live their truth.”

The court is sending the Rice and Childers-Gray’s cases back to the district court, with instructions that the lower court grant Rice and Childers-Gray’s requests to have their gender change listed on their records.

Childers-Gray’s said Thursday that while he and Rice’s case has concluded, and that the gender-marker issue in Utah is fixed, there are still battles to fight for transgender equality. This year alone, lawmakers in more than 30 states debated bills restricting transgender rights, according to the bipartisan Freedom For All Americans.

“This is a victory along a journey that we all take together,” he said. “So, to the next mountain, let’s make it a molehill. "

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sean Childers-Gray speaks at a press conference May 6, 2021, after the Utah Supreme Court ruled in his favor that allowed him and another transgender Utahn to list the sex to which they identify on their driver’s licenses and other state records.

Previous ruling a ‘legal mistake’

The district court’s rulings, the opinion said, “were based on a legal mistake.” Himonas noted that the lower court ruled in Rice’s case that issues regarding sex-change designations are up to the Utah Legislature, “and the Court is prohibited from invading the legislature’s prerogative.” However, the court also proclaimed, in Childers-Gray’s case, that “some biological facts are not subject to voluntary modification,” then proceeded in what Himonas’ opinion said were “what we can generously describe as a page of hypotheticals and slippery-slope arguments with no factual basis.”

Durrant agreed with most of Himonas’ opinion, with a couple of exceptions. Durrant said the justices did not need to “invoke our common law authority,” and instead apply name-change statutes to gender marker-change requests. He also argued that people seeking such a request should not have to provide proof from a doctor.

The lone dissenter was Thomas R. Lee, the associate chief justice. Lee wrote that while he personally “endorse[s] the values of personal dignity and individual determination,” “the law in question leaves no room for the decision made by the court today.”

The majority’s decision, Lee wrote, is an “invitation for our courts to make new law in an exercise of common-law policymaking power.”

Durrant, in his concurring opinion, added that “in the end it is, as it should be, the legislature that has the last word.” The Utah Legislature could amend the current law, or write a new one, he said. If they do, Durrant added, they should read all 126 pages the court issued Thursday “because, taken together, they provide a rigorous and in-depth exploration of both sides of the issues in this important area of the law.”