Kaleo Ramos said he was 9 when he contemplated suicide. He had been born a girl, and his birth certificate indicated he was female. But he identified as a male, and life at school was hard.
"I wasn’t happy … I wanted to erase it and start over," Ramos said. "When you’re a baby, you really don’t know who you are yet, and it’s not until later in life that you do."
Nearly 30 years later, Ramos is happily living his life as a teacher after undergoing gender reassignment surgery and having his gender changed on his birth certificate.
He volunteers with transgender youth and wants to make it easier for young people who, like him, struggled with a gender label that didn’t feel right.
Ramos is one of a group pushing Hawaii to change a law that requires people to have gender reassignment surgery before they’re able to have their gender switched on a birth certificate. Democratic Rep. Chris Lee said he plans to introduce the bill sought by Equality Hawaii in the legislative session that began Wednesday.
"Everybody deserves to be recognized for who they are, and gender identity as an expression is one that clearly rises above the rest," Lee said.
There are six states, plus Washington, D.C., and New York City, that have a similar law, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
"Birth certificates are an incredibly important document in peoples’ lives," said Arli Christian, policy counsel for that group.
In addition to obtaining driver’s licenses and passports, the documents are used to register for school, and the gender indicated on the certificate is generally what shows up on a transcript. That can make things tricky when a person who’s changed gender applies for a job.
"Every time you use that document and it has outdated information, you are outed, which is dangerous … and prevents transgender people from participating in society," Christian said.
Not everyone can afford surgery, which can cost more than $20,000 for the four surgeries typically required to transition from woman to man, Ramos said.
Even then, the surgery leaves a substantial scar and isn’t always effective. Men transitioning to women often spend even more to undergo procedures, sometimes removing ribs or shaving an Adam’s apple to pass as female.
A similar bill was introduced in the Hawaii Legislature in 2013, and it died in committee. Walter Yoshimitsu, executive director of Hawaii Catholic Conference, testified against the proposal.
"From my perspective, you were born male or female. It’s just the facts," Yoshimitsu said.
If the new bill passes, those who perform traditional marriages could wind up inadvertently performing a same-sex marriage if either the bride or groom was previously a different gender, he said.
Rep. Beth Fukumoto Chang, who leads the Republican House minority, said, "I think various members of the community have raised concerns about this effort when it was discussed so I’m sure it will bring a lot of debate in committee."
Lee said he believes the bill has a chance to succeed.
"I think everybody respects the fact that there are a number of people, neighbors in our communities, who self-identify that would take advantage of this bill, and for many, it’s an issue of basic rights," he said.
Todd Smith, executive director of Equality Hawaii, said he feels like the momentum around the issue is approaching the same speed as marriage equality.
"We want to build on that and continue to do this work to get a level playing field for transgender people in every state around the country," Smith said.