Trans Community Floods Courts Ahead of Trump Presidency

(CN) – In the days following President Donald Trump’s political upset in the November election, social media blew up with hashtags and crowdsourced guides for women, immigrants and LGBTQ people concerned with how their rights could change under Trump’s administration.

LGBTQ suicide hotlines saw sharp spikes in calls for help in the hours after Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton conceded. The Trevor Project reported their average call intake more than doubled the morning after the election.

On Twitter, attorneys and people who’ve filed petitions in court for name and gender-marker changes used #TransLawHelp to connect transgender people with free legal help and guidance for navigating what many fear be even more difficult under the Trump administration. Courthouse News talked to legal experts and transgender people about going through the petition process following the election.

Changing Political Agendas

For a transgender person going through the transition process, filing a petition in court to change their name and gender marker so it accurately reflects their identity is a major step toward living fully as themselves. While most identity documents such as driver’s licenses and birth certificates are issued through the states, many in the transgender community are concerned how federal procedures implemented under now-former President Barack Obama could change.

In 2010, the requirement for switching gender marker on one’s passport changed from requiring proof of sex-reassignment surgery to a letter from one’s physician stating they had received appropriate medical treatment related to their transition.

The same standard applies for changing other federal documents such as social security and Medicare cards and immigration documents.

Despite changes at the federal and local level under Obama, only 11 percent of 28,000 transgender-identifying respondents in the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey stated they had their preferred name and gender on all IDs and records.

More than two-thirds of respondents reported that none of their IDs or records had both the name and gender they preferred.

As some attorneys and transgender people Courthouse News interviewed attested to, having an ID that matches one’s gender presentation is a matter of safety: Nearly one-third of survey respondents who showed an ID that did not match their gender presentation reported negative experiences, including being harassed, denied services or attacked.

While changing one’s name almost always requires a court order, changing one’s gender marker on IDs and legal documents varies greatly.

Kyle Rapinan, director of survival and self-determination for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, said the petition process in New York City can even vary depending on which neighborhood the court is in. Rapinan said they and other attorneys at Sylvia Rivera encourage their clients to file their petitions in Manhattan since it’s friendlier to transgender people.

Because Rapinan works with mostly transgender people of color and low incomes, they said many of their clients don’t have any sort of identification and the petition process takes longer.

The legal fees and costs associated with the name-change process is also a major deterrent: 35 percent of respondents in the U.S. Transgender Survey said they did not try to legally change their name because they can’t afford it.

Despite New York’s antidiscrimination laws, Rapinan said their clients have faced discrimination when filing court petitions. That’s why they’ve worked with other attorneys to train judges on how to deal with transgender people.

“I think the judges really want people to be able to access the courts free from discrimination. There are people who want to learn,” Rapiñan said.

Fear of Diminished Rights

Immediately after the election, nonprofit organizations and groups that work with transgender people saw a sharp rise in requests for information and legal help from people looking to get their name and gender marker changed.

Arli Christian, state policy counsel with the National Center for Transgender Equality, said they are “watching Trump’s administration very closely” since many members of his cabinet – including Vice President Mike Pence – have a track record of supporting anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Christian said she and other experts who work on legal name and gender-marker changes have encouraged transgender people to first change their gender marker on passports and federal documents, since doing so only requires a doctor’s note and not a court order.

She said the name-change process is unlikely to change, and transgender people can go back and correct their names on federal documents once they get the court-ordered change from their respective state.

“It really is an important step for people going through the world and being safe,” Christian said.

Christian said The Transgender Legal Services Network held multiple conference calls following the election where more than 100 transgender people tuned in to each call to get legal advice on the name and gender-maker change process.

As for states, Christian said while the United States has come a long way toward recognizing LGBTQ rights in the past decade, 12 states still require proof of surgery, a court order or an amended birth certificate for someone to change their gender marker on their driver’s license.

Those states are in stark comparison to states like Alaska, Oregon and Washington which were rated “A+” by the National Center for Transgender Equality for how trans-friendly the state’s driver’s license policy is.

At the bottom of that list with an “F” grade: mostly southern states including Alabama, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, which made news last year for passing the controversial bill which legalizes discrimination against transgender people.

Mixed Feelings on Changing Identity Documents

For 50-year-old transgender woman Jessica Soukup, Trump’s election emboldened her to file her petition for name and gender-marker change.

Soukup, who lives just outside Austin, Texas, said she decided to file her petition the day after the election and that she’s not only worried what could happen under Trump, but that Texas lawmakers will follow states like North Carolina in enacting laws that allow discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“I needed to have my gender correct on all my documents so if I got called out in the bathroom I had all my proper documents. I don’t even know what jail they’d put me in if it came down to that,” Soukup said.

Soukup sought out legal advice and was told to update her legal status before Trump’s inauguration. In Texas, a court-ordered gender-marker change is required before someone can change that designation on documents like driver’s licenses.

Legally changing her name and gender marker “was on the list for a long time” since Soukup said she travels internationally.

“Going through TSA and using my passport when I don’t look male and had a male passport was a problem,” she said.

Soukup said when she completes the entire petition process and changes over all her identity documents she will have spent at least $600 and 25 hours in court and collecting documents.

“It was super exciting to have the name done, but I feel like the urgency kind of sucked the joy out of it. It’s certainly a big weight off my shoulders and when it’s all done I won’t have the anxiety I used to have just using a public restroom,” Soukup said.

Soukup said it’s important for people to know what their rights are and what the laws are, especially as it’s uncertain what could change under Trump.

“We have to know what our vulnerabilities are. You have to look and see what exposure do I have and what can I do to limit that and for me, it was to change my name and gender marker,” Soukup said.

Seventeen-year-old Floridian Aaron Bentley told Courthouse News changing his name is something he had planned to do once he turned 18, but has since decided to expedite in light of the election. While Florida law prevents Aaron from changing his gender marker unless he proves he had sex-reassignment surgery, he plans to file his name change petition at the end of the month.

He said it’s important to change his name before he graduates from high school because his school won’t announce his new name at graduation unless it’s been changed legally.

Bentley has been active in Jacksonville in trying to get a human rights ordinance passed which would prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people. He said he spoke publicly about being transgender for the first time at a City Council meeting.

While Bentley is hoping to start transitioning medically, he said changing his name is a step toward being himself.

“The thing I’m most excited about is there will no longer be the fear of being outed. I’m a far way from passing, but it’s a step in that direction of being able to be a regular person in society without being pointed out as different,” Bentley said.

Austin attorney Claire Bow completed her transition in 2014. She said she used herself as a “guinea pig” when she petitioned in court to change her name and gender marker. Since then she’s done pro bono work to help transgender Texans do the same thing.

“I do it as a service to the trans community to help them get identification that matches who they are and how they live their lives,” Bow said.

Bow said state and local government also have an interest in ensuring people’s records accurately reflect how they present themselves.

“If you live your life as a woman and the state doesn’t keep that record that you are a woman, it really defeats the state’s purpose in maintaining those records,” Bow said.

She works with the University of Texas at Austin School of Law on the Trans Name and Gender Marker Project, where she and other legal professionals give pro bono help to those going through the petition process in Texas.

Since 2015, the project has helped more than 100 clients file their petitions in court, Bow said.

Bow said since the election she’s received a “constant stream of inquiries,” including many requests from parents of transgender teens about how the petition process works in the Lone Star State. Bow also said she’s seen an uptick in attorneys who represent transgender clients seeking guidance on the petition process.

Name and gender-marker change is one of the fastest growing areas of free legal work, Bow said.

She said state courts need to follow the “appropriate standard” for name and gender-marker change adopted at the federal level and by many health organizations which requires proof of treatment by a doctor who advises how a person’s gender should be reported.

“Being transgender is not a matter of opinion – it’s something that we are. Courts should be making this decision based on evidence,” Bow said.

Bow said transgender visibility in the media has changed hearts and minds – as well as policies that affect transgender people’s rights.

“As more and more people know someone who is transgender, work with someone who is transgender – that fear and bias is diminishing,” Bow said.

“I don’t think justice for transgender Americans is a liberal or conservative issue. The issue is do you have enough compassion to recognize a human being.”