On December 2, 1959, at 10:22 p.m., I was born in the hospital that my great-great grandmother built with oil money 25 years earlier. Both my mother and father were born in this hospital 20 and 21 years before this evening. I am told I was delivered in a blizzard.
A few days ago, I received a crisp new birth certificate stating (contrary to the facts stated above) that it was not George Bailey, a boy, but rather Joyce Bailey, a girl, who was born in that hospital. On the one hand, I am happy to have the document — it is one more piece of paper that legitimizes my existence. On the other hand, I feel a bit odd about it because (let’s face it), that’s not the way things happened.
In the delivery room on that dark December night, as far as anyone present knew, I was a normal newborn boy, and that’s what the attending doctor certified. I have the old certificate, the birth announcements, the blue clothes, to prove it. This boy was surrounded by love and expectations from the beginning, imbued with male privilege and power and family history.
This new document erases that fact and replaces it with something that simply didn’t happen. If my parents’ first-born had been a girl, would she have ended up where I am now, or would social and family expectations be such that she would have aspired to something very different? It’s an impossible thing to consider.
But one doesn’t have to ponder this impossibility — the new birth certificate doesn’t undo my life, but just documents it differently. In the UK, they don’t replace your birth certificate when you’ve changed sex, but they issue a Gender Recognition Certificate, supposedly indistinguishable from a normal birth certificate, and when you think of it, this approach more accurate because it leaves the original document untouched. In other words, there are two birth certificates, the original and the new one. In 100 years, when UK genealogy-hunters go back, they can find that John Barleycorn was born on a certain date and that he became Jane Barleycorn 30 years later. What will my progeny find when they go looking for George’s birth certificate? Nothing but a changeling swaddled in pink and left in the little boy’s place.
If the legal documentation doesn’t leave a trace, then it’s up to us to make the past intelligible through telling our life stories.