Legally Me: The Struggle of Officially Redefining Yourself

FullSizeRender (3)About two weeks ago, the State of California, through a LA Superior Court judge, granted my legal name and gender change. I was very emotional when I finally got my hands on the certified copy of the court order. This was what I had been waiting for.

I filed my petition for a name and gender change back in February. I would have done it sooner, but the filing fee in LA Superior Court is $435, and I was still catching up on bills and debts following my graduation from law school and the following 5 months without income.

So I filed in February. All the websites I had read on the subject of filing a name and gender change made it clear that the petition would take about 6 weeks to process and grant. The state would have to clear my paperwork, and then run a criminal background check to make sure I wasn’t changing my name and gender to run away from any parole duties or anything like that. So I filed my papers and paid my fee.

The nice clerk at the name change calendar took my paperwork and stepped away from her desk to look at a series of calendar pages that were posted on the wall. I got an uneasy feeling when she skipped over March, April, May, and June, and walked all the way over to the end of the year. She made a mark on a page, and then walked back.

“December 12th” she said. My mouth fell open. I’m not even sure if I made a sound, but all I could think inside was “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

I must have had some obvious reaction because she looked at me and said “Sorry, the judge that hears these petitions can only do one day a week. After you wait the required time for the criminal check, December is the next available time on her calendar.” I asked her if it was possible to try another court, maybe one not so busy. She told me that CA law requires you file such a petition in your home court. I was suddenly actually sad I didn’t live in Orange County anymore– I happened to be, she told me, at the busiest court in the State of California.

I was crushed. I also filled with dread, thinking about how hard the next 10 months would be still walking around with a female ID and everything else. I already was growing a beard and had my voice drop an octave–I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to explain that my ID was me after a further 10 months of testosterone!

I went back to my office and told my supervising partner what happened. “That’s absurd. You cannot go another 10 months with the wrong documents. You need this changed now, before you spend too much more time building a professional reputation under the wrong identity.” He suggested we file a motion to accelerate my hearing date in the court ex parte (meaning, you go in on your own without being scheduled by the court).

“You write the motion and draft a declaration for you and one for me. I’ll be your attorney. We will go fight this.” he said.

I did everything he asked, and compiled all my documentation of my transition– my coming out letter to my office, my diagnosis, my therapist letter, my doctor’s affidavit, and proof that I passed a criminal background check before joining the Bar. We went in the following Thursday and the judge agreed to accelerate my date to May.

I was ecstatic. Still, it was 3 months away, but 3 was much better than 10. And the whole time I kept thinking to myself: this is so screwed up.

What would I have done if I wasn’t a lawyer? I mean, I understand legal crap, and I could barely fill out all the paperwork for the petition. I can’t imagine how a non-lawyer would manage. And a non-lawyer wouldn’t even know that you can go in ex parte and ask the court to do something.

The law for name and gender changes in CA definitely does not reflect the needs of the community that process is designed to serve. People who are changing their name and gender are transitioning, usually. Not all trans people take hormones or have surgery. But many do. It’s only been 4 months since I filed my petition and I already look much different– fuller beard, bigger build, deeper voice. After 10 months I would have been some giant, beardy dude with an ID that said “Anna.”

I had already begun to receive push back from people about my ID not being me– bouncers, cashiers at the grocery store, the TSA… but people not wanting to serve me was one thing. I couldn’t imagine the safety hazard that comes from having an ID and a physical presentation that do not match. Especially for people like trans women, who are already often subject to high levels of harassment, violence, and even murder.

The legal process of transitioning does not in any way line up with the physical process of transitioning in other ways, too.

For example, up until a year ago, trans people changing their names and genders had to publish a notice in a public news paper for 6 weeks announcing to the whole world what they were changing their name/gender to and from. I had a friend who transitioned 20 years ago, and published his notice in a Korean-language only news paper, out of fear that his employer would learn his plans to transition. It finally dawned on the legislature that maybe making trans people put their business out in public was a safety hazard, and so thankfully that requirement did not apply to me. Still– are you kidding me?

Another example is the requirement that a doctor testify that you have “transitioned” at the time of your petition. I actually had my petition delayed two weeks because my doctor originally wrote that I was “transitioning,” rather than saying I had “transitioned.” This made total sense to me– after all, how can I have already transitioned if I haven’t changed my name and gender marker? The judge took issue with the “-ing” instead of “-ed” and actually made me get a new declaration from my doctor.

This requirement is completely ignorant of many facts about being trans, like
even if one has the financial resources to physically transition, this can take years. I mean, I will be going through major surgeries and such for the next few years at least. And I will be on testosterone for the rest of my life. Surely the legislature cannot assume that one will go through allllllll of that before having an ID that conforms to their gender expression? It also places a huge emphasis on the medical aspects of transition, where many trans people don’t go through medical procedures at all. Or the fact that a name and gender change is part of the transition,thus it cannot already be done before the petition is granted.

Luckily, my doctor didn’t have a problem re-writing mine, but he could have easily refused to do so because what the court wanted was technically not accurate.

So finally, after much hassle, I got my paper. I was filled with joy. Filled with relief. Filled with frustration at how hard it was to get there. And honestly, a bit filled with dread about the next 6 months of bureaucracy and updating my identity everywhere else.

I am sure this is not the end of my struggle to legally become myself. I decided to volunteer with some legal aid students to run a hotline where other people struggling with the process can contact attorneys for help, so I can put what I have learned to work helping others.

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