Less than a year into starting my first job as a lawyer, I was paired with a polite and bright graduate student from Connecticut who was born in the United States Virgin Islands and wished to amend his birth certificate to reflect his true gender identification. As a recent student, I knew graduate school was hard enough without the added burden of navigating a confusing and unfamiliar legal system, so I was eager to take him as one of my first pro bono clients. Unfortunately, birth certificate amendments for USVI-born Americans had never before been successful. The National Center for Transgender Equality, a leading social justice advocacy organization, puts it simply on their website: “There exist no statutory bans on changing a gender marker on a birth certificate [in the U.S. Virgin Islands] however no protocol or legal standard is known to exist to do so."
Despite this reality, our client eventually won a valid order from a Connecticut court stating that his USVI gender marker had to be updated. I dove into the USVI legal code and made contact with senior officials at the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health and USVI Department of Justice. Still, we continued to encounter rejection after rejection. In one instance, the Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Health sent us a letter stating in no uncertain terms that “we are unable to amend your birth certificate to change your gender from female to male,” and asserting that “The Attorney General of the Virgin Islands has advised the Commissioner that your order from a Connecticut state court is unenforceable in the Territory and not subject to full faith and credit treatment.”
Despite these obstacles, we persisted. The client filed a pro se petition for the filing of a foreign judgment in the Virgin Islands Superior Court, confirming that our research into the USVI code paid off. Over a year after our initial conversation, that petition was granted, and a judge of the Superior Court ordered that the Office of Vital Statistics accept a properly-filed application to amend his birth certificate and gender marker consistent with Virgin Islands law.
When I finished reading the judge’s order, I had a moment of reflection and gratitude. Our client had successfully beaten a frustrating system and endured constant rejection, all while balancing school and family. My own graduate school experience seemed like a breeze in comparison. I believe that having the opportunity to provide pro bono services at work is a privilege and a duty, and I am grateful for this client reinforcing that purpose and resolve and giving me the chance to help affirm his true identity.