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Transgender People Are Finding It's Tougher to Change a Name

Group's advocates say increased concerns of identity theft have made the legal process more cumbersome -- and sometimes unfair.

August 28, 2004|Jean-Paul Renaud | Times Staff Writer

Luca Brenna scoured baby books for months looking for the right name. Jennifer, Sandra, Vanessa. None of them fit.

But with a few strokes of mascara and some dabs of blush, the choice of name became obvious. In the mirror, he saw a woman with flawless skin, blond hair, deep blue eyes and thin red lips.

Brenna knew it was time to change his name and sex on his driver's license. So on Dec. 26, 2002, at age 31, he became Sonya.

"It was hard to decide," the 33-year-old said. "How does a name match a person? It's just something about that name that's very connected to who you are.

To many transgender people -- those men and women who, gay or straight, identify with the opposite sex -- changing their name and gender on official records is as important to their identity change as surgery or hormone therapy, advocates say.

Since Brenna was a teenager, he knew he was not supposed to be a boy. The name change was a crucial part of a long journey to become what he felt he was meant to be: a woman.

"It meant the world to me," Brenna said of the license with her new name. "I'm somebody. I see myself in that printed ID and it's just the world."

But without an official name change, transgender people cannot use the new name on leases, credit cards, insurance records or college transcripts.

And the steps required to change the basic documents -- Social Security cards, driver's licenses and passports -- can be confusing and sometimes unfair, advocates said.

The increasing concerns of identity theft have made name-change processes for transgender people even more difficult to undertake, attorneys said.

"Identity theft is a very real and growing problem," said Michael Hernandez, an attorney who helps transgender people with their name changes. "I don't think anybody really gave much thought about how it impacted the transgender community."

Usually, the process of changing one's name is relatively easy and in most cases it requires just a marriage license or divorce decree. For transgender people, the process -- which varies from agency to agency -- is more complicated because they must change both their name and their sex.

Advocates say the policies are insensitive because they don't "correspond to the everyday experiences of transgender people."

"I don't think it's the confusion that frustrates people; it's the injustice that frustrates people," said Christopher Daley of the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center. "It's complicated not because there's different policies; it's complicated because many policies are operating from a place of ignorance."

But government officials said their policies were in place to prevent identity theft.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles allows for transgender people to change their name and sex designation with a one-page form that must be signed by a physician. No sexual reassignment surgery is required. The federal Social Security Administration, however, requires proof of surgery before its records are changed. The State Department needs a court order before it will change a name and sex designation on a passport.

"It goes back to security," said Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, which is in charge of issuing passports. "We want some legal recognition that this person is the person who they say they are."

In California, the Superior Court will only grant such an order with proof of surgery for a sex change and $297.50 to file papers. The court requires that an advertisement be placed in a newspaper for four weeks announcing the change. The ad is to alert interested parties, such as tenants and creditors, of the identity change.

The Social Security Administration tightened its policy in 2002 to require proof of surgery.

"Before, we found situations where some people did change their gender on our records before their surgery was completed," said Mark Lassiter of Social Security. "Later they changed their minds and it created inaccuracies in our records. We need our records to be accurate."

For many, such as Brenna and her partner Jessie Jacobson, 44, who live as women and take estrogen hormones, surgery is not a part of their plans. For some, it's too costly. For others, the health risks are too severe.

"For me, personally, it's a form of mutilation," Jacobson said. "I don't believe it's appropriate for me."

So Brenna, Jacobson and others who have chosen not to go through surgery have conflicting identification cards, attorneys said.

That may pose a problem when applying for jobs, where employers routinely compare a job seeker's information against government records.

Some transgender people say a policy that releases gender information to employers and doesn't allow records to be changed without surgery is dangerous and careless.

Sarah Schoolcraft worries that after she starts applying for jobs and checks the "Female" box, employers verifying that information with Social Security will know she is transgender.

"Suddenly, what restroom I use becomes an issue," said the Long Beach resident, who has been living as a woman for the last decade. "If you don't want to change my status, don't out me."

Those who have stood in lines, filled out forms or approached officials behind counters say the process can be time consuming, costly and uncomfortable.

"I was very nervous," Brenna said of her DMV experience. "You're standing in line and you have to reveal something intimate to a stranger."

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