This piece originally appeared on Civic Ideas on January 27, 2017.
NEW YORK – Jasper King chose his new name while leafing through a baby name book in a local library.
“Somebody had circled the word Jasper and the meaning of it was ‘strong, powerful, treasure,’” said King, 18, from San Angelo, Texas. “I thought that was a really nice, ideal name for me, because I feel like I’m a strong person and having a name that means that reinforces it.”
Baby name books and pronoun “dressing room” websites are first stops for those questioning their gender or embarking on their transition. For many, finding a name that reflects their gender identity produces confidence and security.
While picking out a new name is an important first step, updating identity documents is an arduous and expensive legal process. Motivated by November’s election results, however, many non-binary (those who don’t identify as a man or woman) and transgender people are undertaking the process of updating their names, gender markers or both.
Phoenix, 17, who asked to be identified by first name only, had planned on using the name in a written reimagining of Red Riding Hood, but liked it too much to give it away.
Phoenix then started a Trans/Non-Binary Name Swap blog on Tumblr. “I thought it would be cool for people to tell the story of how they got their name or leave their birth names there and then people can pick them up or find them,” Phoenix said. “If you’re trans, it symbolizes the old you and the new you.”
For trans people, being called by their chosen name amounts to vital acknowledgment of their identity.
“When my friends call me Tori or use pronouns that aren’t she/hers for me, I am so freakin’ happy,” Tori Layne, 18, wrote in email. “Just the other day, my mom was saying to some people we saw at lunch, ‘Oh these are my oldest and my youngest; this is my daughter, Sammy, and this is my little one, Tori.’ And I was ecstatic.” Tori Layne, a moderator on Trans/Non-Binary Name Swap, is from Missouri and asked to be identified by first name only.
Some people who are trans also identify as non-binary, using “they/them” pronouns (which Phoenix uses) as a gender-neutral alternative. Others identify with pronouns that break from English entirely: Tori Layne uses “ne/nem” pronouns.
Coming out about one’s identity and asking friends, families, teachers or coworkers to use new names and pronouns requires great courage, yet legal changes are often a necessary next step. However, court rooms and fees are barriers that many—particularly low-income and young trans people—struggle to overcome.
King decided it was time to change his name after complications traveling and voting. “My birth name is much more feminine, so I’ve had some problems with that. I actually got stopped in the New York airport because they thought I might be pretending to be someone else,” he said. “When I voted, there were people at the voting office who were very concerned because, again, I look much more masculine than the photo that’s on my ID. The whole name change process would just make things like that easier.”
Having IDs that don’t “reflect how the individual moves through the world” can “invite discrimination, harassment and othering,” said Arli Christian, state policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Updating ID is a safety measure: without it one can be “outed” as trans when called on to present ID. 2016 was the deadliest year for trans people, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation reported, with 27 documented homicides and the victims overwhelmingly trans women of color.
The road to changing one’s name is neither easy nor inexpensive nor uniform across the states. It involves filing a change of name petition, which details the current name, the proposed change and the reason. The petition must be notarized, the filing fee paid, a court hearing attended and a court order issued.
Filing fees typically range from $110 to $200. King, however, must pay Tom Green County, Texas, a $262 Change of Name fee. In some states, there are additional costs for fingerprinting, background checks, printing notice in a newspaper and applying for new IDs.
Aware of these costs, the LGBT community and its allies are coming together to provide support. The Twitter hashtag #translawhelp started on Nov. 9, calling on lawyers to provide pro-bono services to help people navigate the system and acquire new documentation. #Translawhelp has grown into translawhelp.org.
“It evolved into more of a team effort to create an online, centralized web portal where trans people can go and they can find lawyers,” said Sarah Brie, a trans woman of color who volunteers on the website and asked to be identified by first name only. Volunteers outside the legal profession run the site, working to increase access to and awareness of legal services provided by individuals who have “identified themselves as resources for the trans community,” she said.
Others focus on getting money to those who need it. Toby Beauchamp from Champaign, Illinois, started a Fund for Legal Name/Gender Changes on GoFundMe. Carl Charles launched the Remember Trans Power—Fight For Trans Lives Passport Fund on YouCaring. And Kendra Albert, a lawyer based in San Francisco, has been matching donors to individuals requesting help, facilitating the donation of more than $50,000.
Blue Delliquanti, 27, an artist living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, used Albert’s network to connect with and financially support someone through the ID updating process. “They put out one of those Google forms… asking how much you’re willing to donate, whether you’d rather help an individual person or multiple people. So, through that I was able to get connected through their spreadsheet with a person named Trenton who is looking to get his information updated,” Delliquanti said.
Finding support from friends, chosen family and strangers is common. Nikk Mayson, 23, a trans man from Orlando, paid for his name and gender marker changes early in his transition through donations on YouCaring. Needing around $500 to complete the process, he was shocked when he received the full sum in just three days. One of his friends donated $100: “[He] was an old friend from middle school, and I hadn’t talked with him in years. … He said, ‘Oh, I just want you to be comfortable and happy.’”
Mayson didn’t have the support of his family when he started his transition, Phoenix is waiting to turn 18 before starting and King is looking for funding now because his 18th birthday was a few months ago.
“Youth can have an especially daunting time trying to navigate this [legal] process,” Christian of the National Center for Transgender Equality said, “and particularly if they don’t have parental support, which is quite common for trans youth.”
Gender marker updates are as essential as name changes, but often require filers to have undergone gender affirming surgery.
“People change their names for different reasons, so every state has some mechanism in place where you can change your name,” said Sarah Brie of translawhelp.org. “But for the gender marker, it’s very obvious why someone would be changing their gender marker, so some states do have more harsh policies, where you do have to have a letter from someone stating that you have undergone surgery and in some places, you have to have been on hormones for x amount of time and had surgery.”
The Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery estimates bottom surgeries at $19,750 to $21,250 and top surgeries from $5,500 to $8,200. Hormone replacement therapy is no small matter either, with estimated costs of $1,500 per year, and the need to continue therapy indefinitely.
Some campaigns highlight passports, because the update policy is simpler than the medical standards of many states. In June 2010, the State Department made it easier to apply for a passport with a corrected gender: a physician’s certification of treatment facilitating gender transition is required, but details of the type of treatment received are not.
The election of Donald Trump as president and Mike Pence as vice president has members of the LGBT community worried for the future of hard won protections and rights. Pence has repeatedly championed anti-LGBT legislation, including government funding for conversion therapy (electroshock treatment to “cure” homosexuality), a constitutional amendment aimed at banning same-sex marriage and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Revolutionary advances in the protection of trans rights were made at the federal and state level during the Obama administration. While states set policies on changes to birth certificates and driver’s licenses, Trump/Pence policies and aims worry advocates.
Though Christian is confident that any changes to the passport policy will take time, she says her organization, like many other advocacy groups, is “keeping a very close eye on any policies that may be at risk.”
Many trans and non-binary people see their future as threatened.
“Seeing so many other queer community members being attacked already, and how many other people of any minority are being attacked… I’m absolutely terrified,” said Ray Maddox Roberson, 20, a college student in Houston, Texas. “I’m worried that it’s going to make my hormones more expensive, maybe take them off of my insurance. I’m worried about how it’s going to affect my transition. I’m worried about how judges eventually are going to maybe lean towards getting the name changes and changing gender markers.”
At least 39 so-called “bathroom bills”—which require bathroom use based on gender assigned at birth—have been introduced in states across the country. In the spring, the Supreme Court will hear the appeal on the case of Gavin Grimm, a trans student from Virginia who is fighting for his right to use the men’s restroom in school.
“This is about dignity. In the 1960s, it wasn’t about which water fountain you use,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said of Gavin’s case during a panel at The Williams Institute’s Fall Reception on Nov. 17. “It’s about dignity; it’s about being a full member of society.”