At the age of 10, Harriette Cunningham has already cleared the hurdles of telling her family and classmates that she is not the boy identified on her birth certificate. Getting the Canadian bureaucracy to acknowledge that, however, is an anxiety-filled challenge.
With the support of her family, Harriette is pressing for legislative change so that transgender children and youth can change their passport or birth certificate to reflect their gender identity. Whether crossing the border or signing up for gymnastics, she says her official identification is causing her stress.
By law, the Grade 5 pupil in the small community of Comox, on Vancouver Island, cannot change her birth certificate until she is old enough to have sex-reassignment surgery. Her birth certificate identifies her as Declan Forrest Cunningham, but her family has filed the paperwork to change her legal name to Harriette Camille Cunningham.
In a letter to her MLA, Don McRae, Harriette has asked for help to change her gender identity on paper without waiting for an operation that she may or may not choose to have years from now, “because in my opinion it really shouldn’t matter.”
For her father, Colin, the requirement is misguided.
“The problem arises when people think transgendered issues are to do with sexual orientation. She’s 10 years old – she’s not thinking about that.”
For the Cunningham family, the transition from Declan to Harriette was a gradual one. “Looking back, we had a little girl and just didn’t know it,” Colin said. Harriette officially started school in the fall of 2012 with her new name, but it was only after a long process involving counsellors and psychologists, and battles over haircuts and clothing.
Colin recalled how he kept correcting people about his oldest child’s gender until one day, when a Canadian Tire sales clerk complimented him on his two beautiful daughters, he realized that was precisely what he had.
“I wouldn’t change a thing about her,” he said. “What’s hard is you want to spare your child from hardship and other people’s judgment.” He noted that while many people have been supportive, Harriette has also endured some schoolyard harassment. More painfully, perhaps, is that birthday party invitations have almost dried up.
Helping others move toward understanding is more difficult when she is legally boxed in. “It’s a reminder that the government, on paper, doesn’t acknowledge who she is. For a young person, she has a strong sense of justice. She is passionate about this.”
Harriette’s grandmother, Cathie Dickens, is seeking a meeting with her MLA this month in a bid to win support to change the legal identity requirements. She wants to take Harriette to Europe without worrying about travel conflicts over the disconnect between her appearance and her official identity. “It is not a disorder; she is who she is. It is so onerous that she can’t have her birth certificate changed.”