Trans Woman

The Hellish System: Trans Woman Vs. The Powers That Be

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Alexis Record

Feminist, humanist, friendly advocate.

I was stuck on the freeway behind a sea of red tail lights as workers hurried to remove an accident from the road. As I waited, Linda* sat anxiously in the courtroom alone. I finally arrived after the judge had already called her up front. She was trying her best not to let her nervousness or vulnerability show as the judge leafed through her paperwork. Then what she feared most of all actually happened. He told her no.

Linda’s niece texted to ask how it went. Linda showed me the text and looked out the window thinking of how to respond. “It’s just not fair,” she said in a solemn tone.

Last July I wrote about my own experience sitting in a courtroom waiting for a judge to approve my name change. To get to that courtroom involved a lot of paperwork, weeks of waiting, the embarrassment of weekly announcing my intentions in a local newspaper**, and almost $500 in court fees. All that for the privilege of standing before a judge who could tell me no. I did not enjoy being in the position to defend my own decisions about myself to an outsider who didn’t know anything about me. Each step felt unusually invasive, even the paperwork that made me put into words why I was doing this. In the end it was worth it to have a name that reflected who I am. “This whole process has made me realize just how important identity is, and by extension how vital a name is to that identity,” I had written.

Linda’s fears were tenfold. She was legally changing her name and her gender from what they were on her birth certificate to what they are in real life. Like many transgender people, Linda has experienced bullying of the worst kind, and going to court for these changes came with potential risks to her safety.

The judge told her no for a technical and slightly absurd reason. He didn’t like that her doctor had said she was “undergoing” hormone treatments. He would not acknowledge her gender until the paperwork said she had “undergone” treatments. Past tense.

That one word meant Linda was dismissed without being granted acknowledgment of who she was. Let’s just think about how ridiculous this is for a minute. For one thing, Linda was a woman before treatment began. She was a woman the moment her brain informed her of that. The court’s job should not be to determine who is what gender, but to recognize what gender they decide. The process involves an incredible amount of work and hassle, and no one in their right mind would undertake it on a whim.

For another thing, Linda’s body will never produce the amount of estrogen she needs. Estrogen is synthesized in higher amounts in the ovaries. If a woman is born without ovaries, or had a hysterectomy where ovaries were removed, or had an oophorectomy due to cancer treatments or cysts issues, she will need hormone replacement therapy to get enough estrogen. Not once. Not twice. But she will be undergoing (there’s that word again) treatment continuously.

All humans of all genders share a common physical homology: we all have, as sex educator Dr. Jeana Jorgensen has said, the same parts, organized differently. For example, all fetuses at one point have the same genital tissue. A hormone wash over that tissue will result in different formation and function, yet the basic makeup of those tissues remains the same. This is why “sex change” procedures are even possible. We’re all made from the same clay, molded by sometimes imperfect forces that can be re-molded. So determining gender based on genitalia or the amount of hormones produced in the body are problematic and insufficient ways to go about this due to the multiple valid exceptions in the vast array of natural human differences.

For this reason the state of California no longer requires having certain body parts or having undergone a surgical correction before granting a legal gender change. But apparently they require a medically inaccurate description of the process having been “undergone”—a call back to when surgery was required. That language requirement, if indeed it is a legal requirement and not merely the prejudices of the judge, does not reflect the actual process here, and needs to be updated.

A day that was supposed to be a celebration, ended in confusion, sadness, and frustration. Our planned trip to the DMV for a new, desperately needed ID turned into a road trip out to Linda’s doctor (endocrinologists who specialized in gender transitions are not on every street corner) to request the one word change. Linda relies on public transportation so if I had not been there with my car it would have taken her most of the day to do this.

When the second court date finally came, we were both early for it this time. There were no traffic accidents in sight which was a good omen. Linda was steeled up as she waited in thick silence for the judge to enter the room. Out of the multiple people there, and even though she was a returning case, he called her dead last.

He then looked at her paperwork, noted the tense change, said it was approved, and dismissed her. She walked out in a daze, letting out a breath she’d been holding for weeks.

When she was able to process what had happened she couldn’t stop smiling.

My name change was markedly different. I remember being congratulated by the bailiff, my kids being given candy, the judge handing me a sheet of paper with all the places I should consider updating my accounts, and receiving four free original copies of my court decree signed by the judge minutes after getting approval. I had a sense of completion.

None of that was the case with Linda. She was in the same county and court system, but a different courthouse. After her changes were approved she was dismissed without ceremony. She was not given any information on what to do next. She was not met with smiling faces of court staff giving her congratulations. And no candy!

Worst of all, she was not given court decrees signed by the judge. If she wanted them (and be assured they were required for her insurance, bank, DMV, Social Security office, and everything else) she would have to pay $25 per copy and wait for them to be processed and mailed to her. Once again, our plan to get a new ID at the DMV was thwarted since she didn’t have the required paperwork.

Linda didn’t feel as if she could change her name on Facebook quite yet. She’d been going by a different feminine-sounding place-holder name, and wanted to finally go by her own name. But it didn’t feel official without documentation. We ended up going to the local pub and repeatedly going over what the judge’s exact words had been, hoping “approved” meant what we thought it meant. Without the court orders in hand, it didn’t feel official; it wasn’t completely over yet.

Taken from Executive Summary, Injustice At Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found here.

When the documents finally came, Linda wrote me excitedly. She held them (she had paid for three) in her hands and read her own name in black and white. It was thrilling. A short time later she also received a social security card with her name on it. Those small tokens legitimized her; they were priceless to her.

I wish the story ended there, with all her battles behind her. But she still didn’t have a picture ID with the correct name and gender on it. It was time for attempt number three at going to the DMV.

For years Linda has avoided doing anything that required an ID. She carries cash because a credit card requires showing a picture ID with her name and gender on it. Of course situations where she’d have to show her ID could not always be avoided. IDs are required for purchasing drinks, applying for jobs, applying for an apartment, getting on an airplane, getting a hotel room, adopting a pet, buying a cell phone, getting a fishing license, visiting a casino, or donating blood. Every time she was forced to show her ID, it was painful. She could receive dirty looks, negative comments, or prejudiced questions. But the biggest fear, always present in the back of her mind, was the threat of violence.

When the DMV also said no, it seemed unnecessarily punitive.

Forty percent (40%) of those who presented ID (when it was required in the ordinary course of life) that did not match their gender identity/expression reported being harassed, 3% reported being attacked or assaulted, and 15% reported being asked to leave

Of those who have transitioned gender, only one-fifth (21%) have been able to update all of their IDs and records with their new gender. One-third (33%) of those who had transitioned had updated none of their IDs/records.

Only 59% reported updating the gender on their driver’s license/state ID, meaning 41% live without ID that matches their gender identity.

National Transgender Discrimination Survey 2015

Linda left the DMV feeling utterly dejected. Even though she had a court order confirming her name and gender were legally recognized, the DMV would not accept it. They required her doctor to fill out additional paperwork, different than she filled out for court, once again “proving” her gender for their satisfaction. It was another in a long list of slights.

You don’t have to prove your height, weight, hair color or ethnicity when marking the boxes at the DMV that appear on your ID. You decide those for yourself, even with the potential to flub them. But your gender? That has to be critically analyzed with a magnifying glass in the most invasive way. The DMV wanted Linda’s private medical information and her doctor’s approval before they could decide what her own gender on her own ID would be. Did they want her to lift her skirt for them, too?

According to the Transgender Law Center, “Even if you get a court-ordered gender change, you must still follow the process and provide the documentation required by each agency.” So Linda can look forward to a slew of agencies telling her no or running her through additional stress-inducing inconveniences that negatively affect her job, her time, her sleep, and her emotional health.

I had offered to help her through this process on the premise that I had gone through the name change court business already. Yet my cis privilege has spared me from dealing with any of these barriers to equality that I was witnessing my friend go through.

While punctuated with happy moments, Linda’s experiences have been largely dehumanizing. She’s currently navigating a new issue with her doctor’s office about the DMV paperwork meaning she still does not have a picture ID months after beginning this process. She wrote, “I have never done anything that was more mentally exhausting and frustrating in my life. Legal name/gender change process in California is demeaning, insulting, expensive, and one of the most difficult tasks I have undertaken.”

Linda wrote me again today and said, “I’m excited about you writing this story. This process has caused me a lot of worry, immense stress, and anxiety. I really want others to know how needlessly painful this is. There is no reason it needs to be this way. At every step, I felt like I had to beg and feel ashamed just to have basic rights that most everyone else never even have to think about. […] I want to prevent others from having such a difficult time doing this.”


*Name changed to protect her privacy

** The state of California recognizes this process can be unsafe for transgender people and does not require them to announce it in local newspapers thanks to AB 1121 signed on October 8th, 2013 and fully implemented July, 2014.