Making a name for yourself: For trans people, it's 'life-changing'

With states and companies increasingly making their documents trans-friendly, changing your name has never been easier. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
By Dan Stahl

Anders van Marter, a transgender man who works as a technology specialist at a law firm, remembers the culminating moment of his transition. “I came into work one day, and my new business cards were on my desk,” he recalled. After changing his name on his driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate, credit cards and Con Edison account, the business cards were “the bow on everything.”

In that instant, he said he sighed, thinking, “I am a trans person that has a full-time job, and I have a business card.” What that meant to him was that he had navigated an “extremely tricky” process — not just the name change but coming out at work and elsewhere.

"Getting to pick your own name is very powerful. It’s a way of taking ownership of your own identity."

Anders van Marter

Getting a name change as a transgender person may be complicated, but private companies and state governments are gradually making it easier for individuals to use the name and gender marker of their choice. In June, MasterCard announced that trans customers could use their preferred name on credit cards. Three months earlier, United Airlines began offering passengers nonbinary booking options.

Similarly, a growing number of states are introducing gender-neutral IDs. At least 12 states, plus Washington, D.C., currently provide an “X” alternative to “M” and “F” on driver’s licenses. New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington state will join their ranks by 2020.

'A big statement to the world'

The importance of these policies is grounded in something deeply personal. By letting people use their chosen name and gender marker, corporations and governments are sanctioning their identity. Suzanne Ford, a transfeminine sales manager at a packaging company, said she wishes the public grasped this significance.

“I think it sounds superfluous to people on the outside,” she said of changing one’s name, but, she added, “that’s a big statement to the world about who you are.”

Jackson Bird with his new passport.Jackson Bird

It’s also a statement that can take years to make. Jackson Bird, a trans activist who’s delivered a TED Talk on communicating with his community, cycled through eight name possibilities (Bill, Michael, Jack, Larson, Linc, Luke, Liam and Carson) over two decades. Eventually, after consulting his mom, he went with “Jackson,” something she'd considered naming him had he been assigned male at birth.

Van Marter also deliberated over his new name. For him, contemplation began six months after top surgery (a blanket term for the chest reshaping procedures some trans people undergo).

“I wanted things aligned so that everything was male-presenting,” he explained. He sought a name that both meant something to him and resembled his birth name so that others in his life could adjust to it quickly.

Like Bird, van Marter turned to his mom for help. Together, they settled on “Anders,” which shares the initial letters of his former name and means “manly.”

“Getting to pick your own name is very powerful,” he said. “It’s a way of taking ownership of your own identity.”

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There are practical as well as personal reasons for changing one’s name, stressed Robert Christmas, a partner at law firm Nixon Peabody, where van Marter works, and co-chair of the firm’s LGBTQ resource group.

“If you sit and think for a second of all the different places that we have to present identification,” he said, “it’s mind-boggling.”

Bars, airports, cash registers, reception desks — most people accept ID checks without a second thought. Trans individuals whose ID photos and names mismatch their appearance don’t have that luxury. Every check is “at a minimum full of anxiety,” Christmas lamented.

Bars in particular bothered Bird, who started testosterone two and a half years before changing his name and gender marker. He’d worry about bouncers monitoring which bathroom he went into. And whenever gender discrepancy becomes an issue, he noted, he would have to out himself to resolve it.

“At that point, you’re like, ‘Is this person I’m engaging with or people who are overhearing — are any of them transphobic? And might any of them cause ... violence or harassment?’”

According to the U.S. Transgender Survey, the answer is often yes. That survey, the largest ever conducted of transgender Americans, found that 32 percent of respondents who presented ID at odds with their gender presentation were “verbally harassed, denied benefits or service, asked to leave, or assaulted.”

Roark “Rocky” Holbrook, a nonbinary veterinary technician who uses the pronoun “they,” said one bouncer just looked at their ID and laughed.

"It was a very uncomfortable feeling,” Holbrook recalled.

To avoid such situations, 30 percent of trans people change their legal name. The process varies drastically by state and even by county. In New York, Christmas said a name change is “not particularly complicated,” but it can still take weeks and more than $200. Name changers must complete a petition in the presence of a notary public, file it with a copy of their birth certificate (which may need authorization if not issued by New York state), pay a fee ($65 or $210, depending on the court) and appear before a judge. If all goes well, they emerge with a document legalizing their new name within weeks.

In other states the process can take months and up to $500. Because unemployment in the trans community is three times the national average, that price tag is sometimes prohibitive. Even people with the money may balk at going to court.

“They fear the process will be too complex and potentially biased against them,” AC Dumlao, program manager at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), said.

On the flip side, some individuals breeze through. Emrys Donaldson, a nonbinary English professor who changed their name in Alabama’s Tuscaloosa County, simply went to the county courthouse and filled out a form, which a judge then stamped. “It took me, like, 15 minutes,” they said, and cost $18. Ford’s Bay Area judge congratulated her, and Bird’s New York City court clerk commended him on being true to himself.

A number of transgender advocacy organizations have resources to help people navigate the labyrinth of possibilities when it comes to name changes. Bird and Holbrook applied to TLDEF’s Name Change Project, which connects low-income individuals to pro bono attorneys who represent them in court. It serves eight mostly metropolitan areas.

Donaldson recommended Trans Lifeline, a nonprofit with a microgrant program that supports name changers financially and logistically. Another nationwide resource is the National Center for Transgender Equality's ID Documents Center: Searchable by state and ID type, the online database tells people what documents they need to change their name on specific IDs. Local LGBTQ centers may also offer assistance.

'Life-changing'

Finishing the process leaves many, such as Donaldson and van Marter, with a sense of completeness.

“It just feels awesome to have everything match,” Donaldson said. "I get a lot of compliments on my name, which is also nice, but more just the sense of feeling at home in it and feeling like it’s something I constructed feels really autonomous and comforting."

Christmas said a new name can be “life-changing,” especially when paired with a new gender marker. Trans people can suddenly pass through airport security, checkout lines and job interviews without awkward encounters, including questions about their genitalia.

However, in some cases a name change may cause further difficulty. Georgia, New Jersey, South Dakota and several other states require name changes be made public. That often entails a newspaper notice, sometimes including the individual’s address.

Dumlao said this requirement, which predates the existence of Social Security numbers, was implemented to prevent debt evasion. “New York's name change statute, for example, dates from 1847,” Dumlao said.

“In an era of credit reporting, this broadcasting of a name change is now unnecessary,” Dumlao claimed, noting that some states have updated their statutes. In those that haven’t, trans name changers risk ostracism or violence from fellow residents.

Publication requirement or not, such treatment is always a hazard of name-changing and other steps toward living openly as trans. When Ford emerged publicly as Suzanne, she and her family were kicked out of their church.

Still, Ford doesn’t regret her decision. “Now I get to show up and be me in my relationships,” she said. “There’s no divide between me and people anymore.”

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