It is an instinct to perk up when someone calls your name. It might mean your lunch order is ready or even that it is your turn at the dentist’s office. Responding to your name is an act that happens thousands of times over a lifetime. For transgender and nonbinary people, the experience of being called by the wrong name or having a receptionist or a bouncer hesitate when comparing your physical appearance to an outdated identification card can range from stressful to life-threatening.
Imagine a small waiting room of 20 people, mostly strangers to one another, all brimming with anticipation, nerves, and excitement. They are throwing curious glances at one another, knowing that they are each there to complete the next legal step of their very personal journey to be true to themselves: they are in a name and gender change clinic.
There, transgender and nonbinary people pursue the simple goal and navigate the complex process of securing identity documents that accurately reflect who they are. There are many historic motivators for name changes (e.g., religious conversion, dynasty preservation, or avoiding ethnic discrimination). None may be as personal as the desire to claim one’s true identity publicly.
State courts have been home to most name-change processes in the United States. As state court procedures evolve, so do state and federal agencies, like offices for motor vehicles, vital records, marriage bureaus, Social Security records, and passports. The maze of name change requirements is daunting. When layered with daily instances of discrimination or harassment, transgender and nonbinary people often fare better with an advocate by their side.
Over the last century, some transgender people have successfully changed their name through alternative routes thanks to a sympathetic clerk at their local DMV or Social Security office. Those “administrative” name changes are now catching up with folks as databases and security concerns require more consistency (e.g., court orders, especially in the age of REAL IDs).
Getting assistance from a pro bono volunteer at a clinic can help an applicant deal with the different types of paperwork each agency and jurisdiction requires. In some states, each county may have its own procedures and documents for processing name change applications. Additionally, each state agency has its own requirements for updating one’s gender marker in its system. Combined with the federal agencies involved in a name change (e.g., Social Security, State Department, and in some cases the Department of Defense), this work exposes volunteers to a wide variety of legal and administrative procedures. At the same time, this work offers invaluable assistance to clients whose personal journeys are notoriously filled with discriminatory roadblocks and prejudice.
Volunteers help clients with various tasks: complete name change applications, identify adequate proofs of identity and address, sort through any criminal history, identify creditors, draft affidavits describing privacy concerns, format letters to the Social Security Administration, and more. Volunteers might appear in court in support of a motion to seal records or to waive publication requirements. Volunteers may also help with filing paperwork electronically or in person. Some clinics offer financial assistance to help clients cover the costs of name and document changes, which can easily exceed $350.
The process of updating one’s identity documents usually spans several months or longer, and during a pandemic, each step of the process is unavoidably slower. Working with pro bono volunteers, individuals looking to change their name or gender markers can successfully navigate this branch of their journey.
Name and gender change clinics need volunteers like never before—trans clients have disproportionately suffered from the pandemic, lost their jobs, and fear for their safety and survival. As courts begin to reopen, the demand continues to grow, and even more clients are expected to pursue updated documents. Lawyers interested in learning more about name and gender change information or looking for an organization where they can volunteer should visit the National Center for Transgender Equality, which provides detailed information about state laws and local resources.
The Whitman-Walker Health Name and Gender Change Clinic
Since 2012, the Whitman-Walker Health Name and Gender Change Clinic has connected pro bono volunteers with clients seeking to change their name and gender in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. In the last two years, 47 volunteers, supported by staff, helped more than 520 trans and gender expansive clients apply for identity documents that accurately reflect who they are.