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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And Then There are the Bathrooms….

*This is a general post about the politics of using bathrooms. I am not addressing the Transgender Bathroom Laws here– that deserves its own post.*

I haven’t been comfortable in a public, multi-stall restroom since 2011, which was the last time I went to Union Hall in Brooklyn, which has gender-neutral multi-stall bathrooms for everyone. Other than that, the only time I am really relaxed about using the bathroom in public is when I can use a single-person, gender neutral facility (like Starbucks).

Before transitioning, I used women’s restrooms. Because I was very male-presenting, my presence was often met with shock (like when women would enter the restroom, see me washing my hands, and would immediately leave because they thought they’d walked into the men’s room. LOL.), sometimes with outright hostility.

I had a 60+ year old woman walk up to me while I was in line in the ladies’ room at LAX and say “Excuse me, are you in the right place?” I was particularly grumpy and I replied “Lady, I would have to be the biggest idiot to be standing here in line with a bunch of women if I didn’t belong in here. Do you want to see my vagina?” THE LOOK ON HER FACE WAS TOTALLY WORTH IT.

As upsettinrestroom-signs-e-meng as my ladies’ room experiences were, the thought of going into the men’s room was scarier because of the prospect of physical violence. Needless to say, when I began transitioning, I was really excited when I started “passing” well enough to use the men’s room.

It turns out, men’s rooms come with their own challenges. First, there are new rules to learn.

1. Never make eye contact (you know, because of the gayness of eye contact in a place where you go to relieve yourself).
2. Do not speak to anyone else in the restroom, even if you know them. Must wait until you exit.
3. Be as disgusting as possible. (Okay, this isn’t a rule, per se, but you’d think so if you saw what I’m talking about.)

Second, there are many different configurations of men’s rooms and you have to think on your feet. Will there even be stalls? If so, will they have a door? Or will the toilets be working? How do you gracefully exit a bathroom once you walk in and realize there is nowhere for you to actually pee? I went into a single-person, designated men’s room at a grungy bar in Hollywood on Friday. It had a toilet (yay!) but the toilet was DUCT TAPED SHUT. I ended up having to squat backwards over the urinal. What would I have done if there wasn’t a door I could close and lock?

OH MY GOD MEN’S BATHROOMS THOUGH. Seriously, guys. Seriously. What is it about having a designated “man zone” that means that you can completely disregard all sense of sanitation and decency? The book The Lord of the Flies comes to mind when I consider the forces at play in a typical men’s public restroom.

The baffling thing is that I have used the bathroom in men’s homes, and they are NEVER as gross as a public men’s room.  What gives? I wonder if the state of public men’s restrooms is a greater commentary on our culture? Do men feel so put-upon by women in their lives generally that they actively rebel against all the forces that would tell them “Throw your paper towel in the trash can!” or “Don’t leave a giant puddle of pee on the floor!” by conducting themselves like animals that were poorly house-trained?

Or is it a symptom of groupthink? “I would normally pick that paper towel up, but since there is already a pile of them on the floor, I’ll just leave it….”  I may never know the answer to this question, but I will continue to ask it until someone gives me an answer that isn’t “It’s because men are just gross.” We, as humans, are better than that.

In the Company of Men

“I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” — Groucho Marx

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” — The Great and Powerful Oz

My feelings about being a member of the dude club range somewhere between these two quotes. I have the privilege of “passing,” which means that the outside world reads me as male. I am also white, a native English speaker, and work in a white collar profession, which means that the outside world puts me in the highest social strata, based on my appearance. The truth, though, is that I was raised female in a middle-class family in Texas. I lived as a lesbian/queer woman for 16 years and consider myself to be a raging feminist.

This outward/inward dichotomy puts me in some interesting situations as I learn how to navigate male culture and privilege. I often feel like I’m undercover. A spy. An outsider sneaking around in disguise. I have thoughts like “Holy cow. They really don’t know, do they?”

This post is the first in what I imagine will be a series that might otherwise be titled “Sh*t Guys Say When They Think There Are No Women Around.”

So I’m in the elevator at work the other day. I work in a very big building in Downtown Los Angeles. It’s 51 stories tall, and full of mostly lawyers. Mornings are usually pretty crowded in the elevator bank, with throngs of suit-clad (or thankfully in my case, business casually clad) lawyers, paralegals, office workers, and other professionals making their way to work.

I get into the elevator with four men, all in suits, all appearing to be in their 30s and 40s. I don’t recognize any of them, and none are my coworkers. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had never seen any of them before.

I usually ride my bike or walk to work with my headphones in, and keep them on until I get to work, along with my sunglasses, so I can hang onto that “I’m not at work” feeling as long as possible before beginning my day. So I enter the elevator, swipe my key card, and move to the corner where I lean against the wall and wait to be whisked away to my office.

As the door is nearly closed, a woman makes it to the door in time to put an arm out and stop the doors from closing. She enters the elevator in a rush. She  apologizes to all of us for holding up the lift, and then pulls out her phone until her floor comes. She exits elevator.

Now, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to her as she stood there, I was busy messing with my phone and listening to Pearl Jam. I did notice two things:
1. She was wearing some very daring heels– peep toe, I believe.
2. Her skirt was shortish and tightish– the kind of skirt our career development people always said you shouldn’t wear to an interview.

As soon as she exits the elevator and the door closes, the man standing across the elevator from me says “Damn. I would not kick her out of bed. Right?” And then proceeded to look around at the rest of us for approval.

downloadWHAT!?!? My floor was next, and I barely had time to register what he’d said before I had to get off the elevator. I spent the next ten minutes processing what had happened. This man had read me as a guy, and then assumed that it would be totally okay with me to hear him talk about his sexual interest in that woman in the company of strangers.

After a few minutes, I began to feel guilty for not saying something back to him. I had missed an opportunity to educate that man, or at least make him (hopefully) think a little. I am not usually one to let things go unsaid, but I was honestly so shocked that I couldn’t respond. Upon reflection, here is what I should have said:
“That woman you just objectified, out loud, in front of a group of strangers, is a person. She’s someone’s daughter/sister/mother/partner. She’s not just a skirt and heels. She’s a human. And you have stripped her of all of that in one instant by reducing her to sexual object. And what’s worse is, you assume that we all agree with you. Don’t assume you know anything about strangers. We may be victims or survivors, and your words might hurt more than you know.”

Next time, I’ll be ready.

Waking Up Spider-Man

tobey-maguire-cap-1 One question I get from people often is “How do you feel?” Meaning, “Hey, you’re going through a lot of things right now and your body is changing. What’s that like?”

The best analogy I have come up with is that it feels like waking up as Spider-Man. You know, the scene in the movies where Peter Parker, having just been bitten by the radioactive spider, wakes up and realizes he is not only strong, but that he can do things he never dreamed possible.

No, I don’t have magic wall-climbing abilities and I cannot shoot web stuff out of my wrists (I’m also still not crazy about heights), but I do have this sensation every day where I never know what will happen next.

Taking testosterone has caused a lot of things about me to change, but one thing that is the most obvious is that I have put on quite a bit of muscle since I started last August.  In fact, I have gained 23 pounds! I recently had a body scan done at the gym (which is something I never would have been excited about before transition), and I am down to 16.1% body fat, putting me in the 20th percentile for guys my age.

AMAZING!

Not only do I feel stronger almost every day, I also am unlocking new abilities weekly. I do CrossFit, which if you don’t know, involves a menu of probably hundreds of different exercises/lifts/movements that you do in your workouts. I have been crossing things off my CrossFit “bucket list” like crazy! Handstand push-ups? Done! Pistol squats? No problemo! I also have seen my 1-rep-max Olympic lifts go through the roof.

An example: In August, I could bench press 135 lbs. It was less than my body weight, but pretty respectable for a female.  In May, I did a 205 lb. bench press twice. Incredible!  My front squat went from 160 lbs. to 235 lbs. My back squat went from 180 lbs. to 255 lbs.

Where I used to feel like I was hitting a plateau in terms of my strength and ability, now I succeed almost every time I go to do something I have never done before. I’m stronger, faster, and leaner. I have more energy and generally feel pretty fantastic. I may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but I am okay with that– every day it’s like I’m waking up Spider-Man.

Trans* is not One Story

People ask me frequently what it feels like now to “be in the right body.” This question always throws me off some, for a few reasons. One is that I never really felt like I was in the wrong body, per se. Another reason is that I can tell this question is a symptom of our culture’s fixation on the dominant trans* narrative, that is, the story of a Person-Who-Always-Knew-Something-Was-Wrong. I bet if you ask most people to describe what it means for someone to be trans*, they will articulate some version of this:

Person is born. At a young age, Person begins telling the world “I’m not a This, I’m a That!” Person starts acting out on their desires to be a That. Person struggles with unhappiness until at some point, Person’s Parents pursue therapy/treatment, and then Person gets to live as they wish.

While that story line may indeed describe a good number of trans* folks, it is certainly not the only way to be trans*. It took me 10 years to realize that trans* means different things to different people, and that yes, you can still be trans* even if you didn’t think you were born in the wrong body when you were 3 years old.

I am incredibly lucky to be transitioning when I am. I have this realization almost daily– every time I see a news feature or a Facebook post, I realize how much more accepted being trans* is in most parts of the US today than it was 10 years ago when I first contemplated this whole process. At the time, I was living in TX and I knew exactly 1 trans* person. His name was Eli and he had, from what I could gather, a pretty tough go of it. His experience played heavily in my decision not to pursue gender transition physically for a long time.

But also a huge part of that delay was that I bought into the myth that there is only One Trans Story. In hindsight, it is of course pretty ridiculous to think that, as a queer person who had seen lots of different types of other queer people, that I believed that being transgender was much less fluid. But I did– and not really knowing any trans* folks, how was I supposed to know any different. I was, for the most part, okay with my body from a dysphoria standpoint. I wasn’t crazy about my chest, but that’s mostly because boobs got in the way of sports and other things I enjoyed. I am happy with the original plumbing I have been given, so no real issues there. My dysphoria exists in the smaller details– the amount of muscle I could build, the way my clothes would hang, the types of dress and mannerisms I was expected to have. It took a long time of getting to know a lot of other trans* folks before I realized that my feelings about my own identity were just as worthy of the trans* label as those young kids that go on Oprah to talk about being trans*.

I am grateful every day for the exposure that I see trans* issues getting in media. But I also wonder why none of that exposure really focuses on the variety of trans* experiences. I wonder if the reinforcement of the dominant One Trans Story isn’t actually, in some way, harming all those folks out there that might feel uncomfortable with their assigned gender, but don’t fit the mold of the Person-Who-Always-Knew-Something-Was-Wrong?

I am hopeful that the conversation will become more nuanced as time passes, as more trans* folks gain their voices and can speak to their experiences. But we are still a long ways away. So if you’re reading this, consider yourself exposed to a little slice of variety under the trans* umbrella, and please speak up if you hear someone saying that there is only one way to be trans*. 🙂