Cris Lee, a resident of Washington, D.C., is a program manager at a nonprofit that works with traditionally underserved communities. Lee is also a trans man. He has been medically transitioning for just over two years (using testosterone as a hormone replacement), but transitioning socially almost four years. Last summer, Lee began the legal process of changing his name and gender marker (generally M or F) on his identifications.
“In 2014 [I was] still going by my birth name. My ex, who definitely looked at me as the more masculine person in the relationship, always called me Cris. I was named after my uncle, whose name was Cris; my family always called me Cris, so it wasn’t a huge change,” says Lee.
The 29-year-old notes that in 2017, when he started using testosterone, he started introducing himself formally as Cris, after changing his name socially on networks like Facebook. “People who were close to me had already started using it,” he says.
Lee explains that in certain areas of the country, you have to get a court order to change your name legally, and in Maryland, a petitioner has to change their name in a public space and receive a certificate for that publishing, which not only can be a laborious practice but also can “out” you to people in your town or city.
“I chose to use a newspaper,” he says. “Six months went by and I never received the invoice for the certificate, so I had to try again, which ended up being more than once. At this point, it’s been almost a year since I began this entire process, and I am frustrated.”
Lee notes that in most places, in addition to the rigamarole of filing, publishing, following up, purchasing copies of court orders for a new license, a new passport, etc., the costs can climb to upwards of $300. And that’s not the only issue.
Without consistent and appropriate identification, people are essentially barred from access to services, resources, and basic rights of living. Folx cannot apply for jobs, enroll in school, open bank accounts, apply for public benefits, travel, or receive health services. This is especially relevant for transgender people who no longer want to use the name they were assigned at birth (aka their “deadname”). Moreover, lack of accurate documentation begets discrimination and violence.
“A consequence of a slow process is that I look physically different than the person on my ID and I have to show it…It puts you in danger, at bars, clubs, people don’t think it’s you, or make you go through stricter searching, pull you aside for interrogation, even out you to the people around you as trans,” explains Lee. “I was at a Pride party, of all places, and was made to step aside, be searched and smile like my old picture so they knew it was me. It’s embarrassing. And even now I look a lot different than I did, let’s say, last summer.”
Trans people deserve to walk firmly in their lived experience without question or suspicion and the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund’s “The Name Change Project” provides free legal name change services to low-income, transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people through partnerships with some of the nation’s most prestigious law firms and corporate law departments.
Yet, as AC Dumlao, project coordinator of the TLDEF, said in a 2018 testimony before the New York City Council, it is still a struggle for people who do not fit neatly into binary categories. They stated:
“For a non-binary person (whose gender identity is neither woman nor man), even after changing one’s name on their government IDs in NYC, you cannot go on to change the gender marker to a third option … And I commiserate with them. I am not a woman. Nor am I a man. I am a transgender non-binary individual and my pronouns are they, them, theirs…On doctor’s forms to e-mail sign-ups, I’m asked to pick ‘male’ or ‘female.’ From quote ‘female reproductive rights’ to ‘feminine hygiene’ to businesses that only have multi-stall bathrooms, I am continually confronted with being ‘othered.’”
In January of this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill allowing New Yorkers to choose a gender-neutral option on birth certificates.
Yet in most municipalities, the name and gender change process is complicated and oftentimes prohibitively expensive. In some states, the requirements are excessive and invasive, such as proof of gender-affirming surgery, which many people cannot afford or simply do not want, in addition to presenting court orders, or a petition.
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey:
Only 21 percent of trans people have been able to update all of their IDs and records with their new gender. 33 percent of those people had updated none of their IDs/records. 41 percent did not report updating their gender on their driver license/ID and live without ID that matches their gender identity. 40 percent of those who presented ID (when it was required in the ordinary course of life) that did not match their gender identity/expression reported being harassed, 3 percent reported being attacked or assaulted, and 15 percent reported being asked to leave.
“Securing a legal name change can be a challenging experience, involving interaction with the court system and judges. That is foreign and intimidating to many people, in addition to costing an average of $118 out-of-pocket,” Dumlao told the New York City Council. “By providing people with adequate legal representation including financial assistance or applying for fee waivers, TLDEF works to ensure that people successfully complete the process and move forward with their lives.”
I am not a woman. Nor am I a man. I am a transgender non-binary individual and my pronouns are they, them, theirs … I am continually confronted with being ‘othered.’
The organization connects low-income trans folx to pro bono legal representation for the NYC Civil Court Name Change Process. Their clients range from people of color, recipients of public assistance, non-citizens, and housing insecure or houseless people. More than 65 percent of TLDEF’s name change clients live below the federal poverty line and almost 60 percent of them are people of color.
Lee finally received his certificate a few days after he spoke to me. He says, “But it’s so unfortunate that people have to go through all of this. It took a year.”
To be eligible for The Name Change Project’s services you must meet an income requirement as well as live in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York City (including all five boroughs), Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, or a number of New Jersey counties.
For more information visit The Name Change Project here.