Changing Your Name to Match Your Gender Can Be a Challenge, But a New Clinic is Trying to Help

Imagine trying to do something that requires ID with an identification that doesn’t appear to be you. And imagine doing it over and over again and having to explain the situation to people who may be actively hostile and aggressive.
Publish date:
July 10, 2012
volunteering, transgender, name changes, gender changes, pro bono, Transsexual

One thing a lot of cis people don't think about when considering transgender and transexual issues is the hoop-jumping that happens with name and gender changes. This might sound like a minor aspect of the larger picture, but it's actually critically important. It's a process I happen to be intimately familiar with, because I've changed my name, and I provide advice to other people (cis and trans alike) who need help with the process.

It includes not just filing a shit-ton of legal documents, but also handling name changes on everything: Your utilities, your credit cards, your student loans, your account at the video store, your file at the vet's office, your'd be amazed how many things in your life have your name on them once you go around changing them all. And you'd be frustrated and astonished by how variable the process of getting that done is.

Case in point: Changing the name on one of my credit cards was as easy as calling, saying I had changed my name, and getting a new card in the mail three days later. For another, the company had to mail me a form to fill out, which I had to send back along with a certified copy of the court order for my name change. For one utility account, I had to come into a field office with a copy of my old identification, my new identification, and my court order. Another was happy to change my account information over the phone without even verifying that I was the account holder.

A legal clinic in Washington, DC is helping transgender people with this more irritatingly bureaucratic aspect of transition. Getting identification documents and changing over all your other identifying information to reflect the right name and gender is a huge hassle, and it can be an expensive one, too. For people who aren’t used to navigating the legal system, it can quickly turn into a massive tangle that may take a year or more to unravel.

This isn’t just about affirmation of your identity, although that definitely plays a big role; it is a huge, huge thing to pull out your driver’s license and see the right name and gender on it. It can also be a basic safety issue; if you’re going through security with a male identification and you’re obviously a woman, for example, your identification is outing you, and that puts you at risk of harassment. Likewise, it’s really hard to do things many people with accurate identification think of as second nature; starting new cellphone service, for example.

Imagine trying to do something that requires ID with an identification that doesn’t appear to be you. And imagine doing it over and over again and having to explain the situation to people who may be actively hostile and aggressive.

The deceptively simple paperwork for amending a birth record in California.

To add layers of complication to the situation, the laws for changing identification documents vary by state, and it can get really difficult when you want to do something like changing your documents in Virginia, but also amend your New York State birth certificate so it will have the right name and gender. There’s a series of steps you need to follow, and you need to follow them in the right order, or you’ll end up in a colossal mess.

People like court clerks are legally forbidden from providing legal advice, while clerks in government offices may be helpful, or may not be, depending on their mood, policies at the office, and how friendly they are to trans people. When you aren’t familiar with the legal system, that means navigating a scary landscape alone while also dealing with the constant barbs slung at transgender people in the process of transition. As you walk up to the counter at Social Security, say, you never know if you’re going to get a clerk who will casually update the system according to the documents you’re bringing in, or a clerk who will make offensive comments and hassle you.

Attorneys at the clinic provide pro bono services to trans folks who need help with the process, which includes having to file a petition for a court-ordered name change, supported by documentation to prove your original identity and document your new one. For a gender change, you need to submit a letter of support from a physician for the court to change your gender, and Social Security requires a surgeon’s letter documenting gender confirmation surgery, which means that if you’re a member of the trans community who has chosen not to undergo surgery, your gender will remain incorrect on your Social Security documentation.

This process rapidly gets expensive; you have court fees, fees to place notices in the paper, more fees to order copies of birth certificates and court orders, fees for replacement identification documents. It can climb into the hundreds or thousands depending on where you change your identification paperwork, and it can get even more expensive if you do things in the wrong order. That’s where attorneys familiar with the process come in, as they can help you get organised as you file all your documentation.

Into the rabbit hole of birth certificates and amended birth certificates.

Having these services available for free is critically important, since paying someone to help can also get expensive. Low-income trans people are more likely to be unfamiliar with the details of the legal system, and to have trouble figuring out how to file the paperwork on their own. There’s a chance they may have trouble mustering the documentation they need, like birth certificates and other materials; if you were born at home in a rural area, for example, you might not have a birth certificate. They’re also more likely to be people of colour, which exposes them to a greater risk of both race and gender-based harassment which can make name and gender changes particularly difficult.

One of many nonprofit clinics around the country, the Name and Gender Change Clinic is unique in that it handles changes across multiple nearby jurisdictions, which makes the services it provides to clients much more complicated. That doesn’t seem to deter attorneys from volunteering at the clinic, which currently has a waiting list for training, and that’s a good sign, because it may mean more clinics of a similar nature opening in the region as well as the country, since this is a recognised need.

Handling name and gender changes is a real pain in the ass that requires jumping through a lot of hoops. During my own name change, I had a checklist with some fifty items at one point, carefully organised to make sure I did them in the right order, and I was just changing my name, not my gender, because there’s no “genderqueer” designation on government identification. I was lucky in that I had a reasonable level of legal literacy, white skin, and the ability to navigate the system on my own. Clinics like this make sure that as many people as possible are able to do what I did with the same level of dignity and efficiency.

The documentation that came with my new Social Security Card.

Attorneys interested in volunteering for a clinic of this nature in their area can contact local transgender resource centres to see if such a clinic is operating and learn more about the training and participation requirements.