For trans Americans, changing your name can still be a matter of life or death

A national priority.
A national priority.
Image: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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Everyone hates dealing with government bureaucracy—between the long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles, the mounds of paperwork, and the surly employees just waiting until the end of their shift, there’s a reason the DMV has come to symbolize drudgery and dissatisfaction in America.

But for Andre Perez, dealing with Uncle Sam was more complicated. Six years ago, while he was still in college, Perez came out as transgender and officially applied for a name change through his local county offices. When Perez, now 28, went to the Social Security office in Chicago, Illinois, he was asked for “proof” of his gender.

“What exactly am I supposed to prove?” Perez tells Quartz. “How I live my life? The kind of sex I have? What’s between my legs? What is in my soul? What even is gender?” The Social Security office employee clarified that she would need proof of “the surgery.” Perez responded, “Can I give you a journal entry detailing how I feel?”

Perez is not alone in his frustration. On March 23, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed a controversial bill into law forcing transgender people to use restrooms according to the gender on their birth certificates. LGBT advocates immediately spoke out against the bill, which has essentially politicized the act of peeing. But as trans rights are pushed to the forefront of the new cycle, it’s important to remember that the system is set up against trans Americans from the start.

For many transgender people, simply changing one’s name is an absurd exercise in red tape and invasive questions. Often the first step, the process to change your name alone can take years to complete. Without a federal standard, policy is left up to individual states, where the rules can vary literally county to county. Once the change is complete, an entirely new process starts as individuals file updated documentation with government offices, landlords, and even credit card companies.

When Perez went to the bank to update his account, he explains that the teller on duty was paying little attention to his request. “He put me on a joint checking account with myself,” he recalls. “I was Mr. and Mrs. Perez.”

“A huge pain”

Despite a surge in trans visibility in recent years, it’s difficult to know just how many transgender people live in the United States. Many are not out to friends or family and may choose not to disclose their trans status. In the wake of North Carolina’s decision to repeal local nondiscrimination ordinances in the state—which would allow trans residents to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity—it’s easy to see why.

A 2011 estimate from UCLA’s Williams Institute found that there were around 700,000 trans individuals living in the US, but that number is likely much higher.

But according to a 2015 report in the The New York Times, just 135,367 applicants “have changed their name to one of the opposite gender” in the 80-year history of the Social Security Administration, and even fewer have received a successful gender change. Even going by the Williams Institute’s data, that number represents a small percentage of the transgender population. According to the Times report, just 30,006 people—less than half the population of Gary, Indiana—have ever changed their gender marker on Social Security documents.

Mari Brighe, a 33-year-old trans writer living in Dearborn, Michigan explains, we shouldn’t be surprised. The difficulty of the process keeps many trans people from even attempting it. “Everything had a wait, and no one communicated with me,” she tells Quartz. “Even finding out which office I had to file my petition with was a huge pain.”

So what exactly does the name change process entail? Mik Kinkead, a staff attorney for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City, tells Quartz that the current standard is both time-consuming and complicated.

“The basic procedure requires that a petition be submitted with an original or certified copy of the birth certificate if born in [New York state],” Kinkead, who also serves as director of the Prisoner Justice Project, explains. “A court date is then chosen and the applicant has to appear. If the name change is granted, the applicant then has to publish the name change and bring proof of publication to the court. After that, the name change order is finalized.”

After receiving the change order, applicants have to make a separate visit to both the DMV and Social Security offices to have their driver’s license or other forms of identification amended. All in all, it’s a labor-intensive, often pricey process. In Michigan, where Mari Brighe lives, the state additionally requires two sets of fingerprints for name change applications. She estimates that, in total, having her name changed cost $300.

That cost can be an extreme barrier to entry for all low-income people, especially those unable to pay for the expense out of pocket or take time off work. However, these financial roadblocks are especially severe for trans folks: A 2015 report from Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress showed that trans people are four times more likely than the average person to live under the poverty line; 15% of transgender Americans make less than $10,000 a year.

From protection to harassment

Money is just one way that the system itself remains unfriendly to trans people, however. When Brighe applied for a name change, she remembers that government employees were not only “curt, short, rude, or deliberately unhelpful,” they also frequently misgendered her, calling her “sir.” Brighe tells Quartz, “A few muttered things under their breath sounded a lot like slurs.”

Research backs up Brighe’s story: In the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 60% of trans people reported experiencing discrimination when applying for a name or gender change.

In addition, Kinkade explains how the name change process can actually end up putting trans people at risk for harm. Last year, a record number of trans women were murdered in the United States, and many of these victims were killed after their attacker discovered their trans status. And yet, many states require that trans people take out an ad in the paper announcing their name change, the ultimate form of “outing” themselves.

“In New York, there is a publication requirement that … requires that your birth name, changed name, and current address are all listed,” Kinkade says. “This requirement can be waived, but without an attorney present to argue for that, it can be hard to achieve. The judicial system bears a lot of prejudice against transgender people, people of color, and low-income people.”

The reason that many courts require such a public announcement is to prevent fraud, which is why some states like California also mandate background checks to approve name changes. California did away with the publication requirement in 2014, but states like Texas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Montana still have similar policies on the books. Some allow applicants to have publication waived, but Kinkade says getting that request approved by a judge can be difficult.

While well-intentioned, Alana Chazan, an LGBT rights and family law attorney practicing in California, notes that criminal history assessments unintentionally harm many transgender people.

“In a society which criminalizes trans people, many trans people are on parole or have had arrests for survival sex work,” she tells Quartz. “As a result, having a name change becomes an impossibility.”

Time for a new system

In addition to doing away with background checks, advocates argue that the entire name change process needs to be simplified. S.E. Smith, a 31-year-old genderqueer writer and activist living in Ukiah, California, says that the quirks of local bureaucracy—like government buildings located miles away from each other—can make the process much more difficult than it needs to be.

Having services under one roof can make a huge difference,” Smith says. “It would be really convenient to finish your court proceedings and walk across the hall to the DMV offices where you can file all the paperwork you need to file. With birth certificates, it’s even little trickier because you have to go to the county clerk where the birth certificate was filed—which is difficult if you have to go out of state.”

Smith dreams of an automated system that would save folks the time-consuming chore of calling every magazine and website subscription to update their information. This would compromise a “website or a service” that those who have received their court order can visit say, “Hey, I changed my name.”

“You would just scan your court order or new ID and just check the boxes for all the companies you want to send it to.” Smith says.

Such a system would be more efficient for everybody, and might encourage more people to formally apply for the important change. “Names are really powerful things,” Smith explains. “Names become an intensely integral part of your identity. They shape the way we think about people and they shape the way we think about ourselves. For a lot of transgender people, your name is almost like an emblem of the dysphoria that you experience.”

Making the system easier, more accessible, and more competent when dealing with gender identity issues would go a long way towards affirming trans identities. Equally important, it could prevent abuse from local law enforcement or government officials—and even save lives.

Trans people are often subjected to harassment from TSA officials because their perceived gender identity may not match their documentation. According to queer rights group GLAAD, this puts “transgender and gender non-conforming travelers at a higher risk for intrusive examinations such as pat-downs and inspection of their chests and genital areas.” Last year, television producer Shadi Petosky was detained by officials at the Orlando International Airport because the TSA scanner detected an “anomaly.”

This experience is not relegated to airport terminals. It’s also incredibly common in everyday life. Simply walking down the street can be a harrowing experience: “Being transgender in this country is suspicious,” Kinkade says.

Kinkade explains that many of his clients have faced sexual violence from police after being targeted for not having up-to-date identification that reflects their chosen name and their gender identity. It means that many of the trans people he works with have stopped even going to the grocery store, in fear of what will happen if they encounter a police officer. This especially true for women of color—who face the highest rates of abuse from law enforcement.

“An important thing to remember is that the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color [right now] is 35 years,” Kinkade says. “That’s unacceptable. That’s due to interpersonal violence and state violence, it’s due to lack of access to meaningful health care and stable housing, and it’s due to over-policing and profiling. Our legal services hopefully provide a small respite from that—a chance to access health care, or even to change a name.”