Emily Wells was 16, living in Mackay and about to go for her driving licence when she saw her birth certificate for the first time.
That was when Wells discovered, she says, the document was wrong. Not only did it list a name she now refers to as her “dead name” but, according to the certificate, Wells should be a young man.
“I was uncomfortable at seven, and by eight I knew I was a girl,” she says.
But the year was 1979 and the setting was regional Queensland – gender transitioning was not an option. So Wells was stuck with a foundational identity document that did not actually reflect her identity. And that had flow-on effects.
“Every identity document I had, everything was wrong,” she says.
To this day, in order for Wells to change the sex listed on her birth certificate, she would require sexual reassignment surgery. It is surgery Wells has long wanted but, with a price tag of up to $100,000, has proved prohibitively expensive.
“Not all trans people can afford that,” Wells says. “Most of us can’t.”
But the Queensland government is now set to introduce reforms to parliament that the attorney general, Shannon Fentiman, says will modernise birth certificates to make sure a person’s legal identity matches their lived identity.
The bill will also allow for two mothers or two fathers on a birth certificate, or for them simply to be listed as parents. And while parents will still need to register a sex for their child in the registry, it would no longer appear on the certificate unless parents opt for it.
New South Wales is the only other state or territory in Australia that requires trans women like Wells to undergo surgery – which is not covered by Medicare – before changing the sex listed on their birth certificates.
In the years since Wells sought her driver licence, things have changed. Gradually, Wells was able to align the way the world saw and described her with who actually was.
Aged 37, after several attempts, Wells transitioned socially, taking her current name and presenting to the world as a woman.
That brought euphoria, and also discrimination. But Wells says she wouldn’t still be here otherwise.
“You don’t just wake up and decide to be – it’s always there,” she says. “And you reach a point where you can no longer pretend to be who you aren’t.”
Then came medical transitioning, in the form of hormone replacement therapy pills. And legal transition – changing those identity documents. She still remembers the first to carry her correct name. It was a library card.
Wells now lives in the outback mining town of Mount Isa, where she is a human resources manager at the local hospital.
“Where I live they’re really, really, really good,” she says. “Even Mount Isa has grown and changed since I’ve been here. They’re used to me, I always say.”
Other documents changed over the years – except for her birth certificate. It still affects her life. Wells had to present it recently at a bank, where the teller began confirming its details aloud.
“To me, it’s like everybody’s listening,” she says. “World, swallow me up.”
And, Wells says, she is an advocate.
“I’m out, but there’s lots of us who aren’t. And as soon as we are asked to produce our birth certificates, well, now we are outing ourselves.”
Fentiman expects to introduce the bill on Friday and says the reforms are intended to begin in 2024, allowing “sufficient time to ensure appropriate processes are in place at the registry”.
Wells says she will be there the minute she is legally allowed to do so.
“I have no doubt there will be euphoria.”