Attorney Ann Williams meets her 33-year-old client for the first time at a legal clinic in Rochester, NY.
She asks him questions about what it’s like to have one name and gender legally and another name and gender in his daily life.
“Has that ever happened with medical appointments?”
“They’ve gotten better,” the client responds. “They’d use female pronouns instead of male. Even when I started coming up with more facial hair.”
The client takes a black tin box out of his bag. He pulls out a passport, a birth certificate, a Social Security card and a license. They’re all designated with an ‘F’ for female. But the client is a transgender man.
He’s been meaning to change his legal name and gender for years. Today, he’s finally taking action because he is concerned the process will become harder under Trump’s administration. He's not alone. Around the country, many transgender people worry about policy changes affecting their ability to legally change name and gender, and hundreds of attorneys across the country have volunteered to help people file applications.
New York state usually requires that name changes are published in a local paper. For safety reasons, the client is asking a judge to waive that requirement. Because of that, Side Effects Public Media and WXXI are not publishing his name.
“I just want to be safe, perceived as who I am – something that a lot of people don’t think about. But when you’re different, you think about it a lot,” he says.
A new report from the National Center for Transgender Equality, based on almost 28,000 surveys, found that 30 percent of respondents ran into problems when they showed an ID that didn’t match their appearance. Respondents said they encountered verbal harassment, requests to leave an establishment and physical attacks.
Under President Barack Obama, the criteria for changing gender on federal identity documents were redefined. Before 2010, only people who had gotten gender reassignment surgery could change their gender legally.
But the policies changed to include anyone receiving transition-related care — as long as they could provide a letter from a doctor. Many are concerned that option will change or go away and are getting legal help.
“Especially if we’re going into an environment where we’re getting more conservative in our country and having a backlash against people who are different, it’s nice to have everything kind of match up; it keeps us safer really in the end,” the client says.
Each state has its own policies and procedures for changing documents such as birth certificates and driver's licenses. Federal identity documentation involves passports and Social Security numbers.
Milo Primeaux, an attorney with the Empire Justice Center, has organized three legal clinics in Rochester, NY.
“The policies we’re talking about here are just that, they’re administrative policies. The new heads of the Social Security Administration, the Department of State, could easily get rid of those policies,” Primeaux says.
He usually advises about 15 people a month for name and gender marker changes. But since the election, he says, there has been a big jump in interest. About 50 people from six counties in upstate New York have signed up for these legal clinics hosted by the Empire Justice Center.
In addition to validation and safety, he says there are other long-term effects to legally changing a name and gender.
“It makes a difference with your ability to access certain benefits – spousal benefits and retirement benefits,” Primeaux says.
Arli Christian, state policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality, says they haven’t yet heard anything about potential changes yet.
“We work very closely with the many folks in the federal agencies that house these policies. We haven’t had any indication that there are thoughts of changing the federal gender marker change policies,” says Christian.
For now, though, the uncertainty is enough to prompt action.
Back at the legal clinic, Ann Williams, staff attorney with the Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County, goes over a printout of the application with her client. She has her notary stamp ready in hand. He’s ready with a special pen he’s brought along to sign.
“Legal name?” he asks.
“Legal name,” Williams responds.
He signs his given name along the dotted line.
After the application gets approved by a judge, the client will have to go to every agency, state and federal, to update identity documents one by one.
He’s hoping to do that as soon as possible.