“I would rather make my name than inherit it.” – William Makepeace Thackery
At the age of 18, Jazz McGinnis embarked on a journey. As a transgender man, this was neither his physical nor emotional journey – it was a legal one: McGinnis wanted to change his name. “Jazz” reflected his authentic self, and he sought to obtain affirming identification documents to be Jazz to the world. To that end, legally changing his name would be the first step. But as he soon discovered, what sounded like a “step” is in fact a complex process.
“When I began my legal name change through the courts, I was barely 18, alone, terrified, anxious, and had no idea what to expect,” said McGinnis. “I had no guidance and didn’t know any other trans people – let alone any other people – who had changed their name. Somehow I managed to fumble my way through filing and the court hearing itself to procure my certified copy of name change.”
Now a University of Michigan Masters of Social Work candidate, McGinnis assists other transgender and gender non-conforming people to obtain their own affirming documents. Earlier this year, McGinnis organized a name change workshop with the help of the UM Law School’s OutLaws (an LGBTQ advocacy group) and the Jim Toy Community Center’s Know Your Rights Project.
As he told BTL at the time, “We’re hoping to reach transgender people across Michigan who otherwise could not navigate the process to gain that one piece of paper, that one ID card, that will reduce their exposure to potentially dangerous situations and increase their ability to access housing, healthcare and employment.”
McGinnis explained, “After the inauguration of our current President, there was a palpable and very real fear from the trans community that the protections established under the Obama administration would be rolled back and make it difficult for trans people to receive affirming documents, particularly federal ones like passports and passport cards. I made sure that we emphasized that no matter what happened in this new administration, our legal experts would fight for all people’s right to correct legal documentation. I believe that articulating that commitment was incredibly important to demonstrating our desire and dedication to the safety and well-being of the trans community.”
Along with UM OutLaw’s Josh Goldman and help from the KYR Project, McGinnis facilitated the workshop, which included all the nuts and bolts of a legal name change, information on gender markers, and further resources.
What’s in a Name Change?
To paraphrase Shakespeare, What’s in a name change? Turns out, a lot: For obtaining a legal name change, a petitioner (the person requesting a name change) starts at the probate court in their county of residence. (The petitioner is required to have resided in the county for at least 12 months prior to filing paperwork.) After filing, if the petitioner is 22 or older, he/she/they are fingerprinted for a background check. It will take 30-60 days for the state police to send the results back to the court. At this point, the individual can schedule a hearing on the petition. The hearing regarding the name change must be published in a newspaper at least three weeks prior to the hearing date. At the hearing, the court usually grants the name change after asking the petitioner a few questions.
Besides being complex and time-consuming, a legal name change can be costly: $175 court filing fees, $80.25 for public notification in a newspaper, $42 fingerprinting fee, $10 each for certified copies, plus $2.00/page. Orders are about three pages, and multiple copies may be needed. (Certified copies are generally required to update all other documents – including credit cards.)
All told, you can expect to pay well over $300, once the additional fees for updating a birth certificate are considered. Waivers or other assistance for low-income individuals may be available. (See resources below.)
Following the name change, you’ll need to look at the requirements in your state for updating a birth certificate; all 50 states have different requirements. In Michigan, you will need a court order, photo ID, application, and fee to have your name corrected.
Next, some may want to consider gender markers. Changing the gender marker on your birth certificate (the “F” for female, “M” for male) isn’t so straightforward. Fortunately, Michigan is one of the states that allows a change – many don’t – but the laws are still considerably restrictive and not so clear.
Michigan law states that you will need, “A request that a new certificate be established to show a sex designation other than that designated at birth. The request shall be accompanied by an affidavit of a physician certifying that sex-reassignment surgery has been performed.” (For other states, see the “Know Your Rights” section of the Lambda Legal website for easy reference.)
Yes, there is a surgery requirement – which may not even be appropriate/desirable/financially feasible for any number of transgender people. But what counts as “sex-reassignment surgery”? The language on the medical affidavit is as follows: “I am the attending physician of the patient named above, with whom I have a doctor/patient relationship. The individual named above has had appropriate surgical procedures completed for gender transition to the new gender of [male/female].”
For McGinnis, his top surgery did not meet the state’s standards of “appropriate surgical procedures.”
“The reason cited to me was that I had not had “all of the surgeries completed” which I find ridiculous because what does “all of the surgeries” mean?” he asked. “Why is my choice of what I choose to do to my body more or less trans, more or less valid in my gender? Who at the Record of Vital Statistics chooses what “all the surgeries” are?”
[Note: Despite McGinnis’s negative experience, don’t despair if you are considering updating your gender marker. See resources below for attorneys and others with experience – like McGinnins – who are there to help initiate the process and offer guidance.]
Kerene Moore, supervising attorney for the KYR Project, explains that if you are unable to change the gender marker on your birth certificate and are looking to update your driver’s license, there is a workaround.
“Because the federal and state laws differ on this issue, it is easier to change the gender marker on your passport. Basically, under the relaxed rules, WPATH [World Professional Association for Transgender Health] standards are used, and a physician determines whether you have completed or are in the process of completing transition (no surgery requirement). Those who are in the process of transitioning can get a two- or three-year passport with the preferred gender marker; and those who have completed transition can get a regular 10-year passport with the correct gender designation.” (Gratitude to Moore for sharing her vast knowledge on these subjects.) The importance of the ability to change the gender on a passport can’t be stressed enough, as it may be used as a substitute ID for a birth certificate in almost every circumstance – like updating a driver’s license (but not obtaining a marriage license). This was a significant win in Michigan last year, in which the Secretary of State agreed to the relaxed standards following ACLU litigation. As Moore points out, “Obtaining a passport can help transgender community members obtain accurate ID, which protects them from being unnecessarily outed, and potentially keeps them safer.”
McGinnis reflected on his recent experience having to accept the reality that, as a transgender person, the issues with his identification documents may never be entirely settled.
“In the present, what it looks like to continue obtaining affirming documentation is carrying every single piece of legal paperwork that reflects my journey in correcting my documentation. Last week, I lost my Oregon driver’s license and had to go to the Michigan DMV to replace it. With me – just in case any of my documentation was questioned – I brought my birth certificate, my certified court order of name change, the letter from my surgeon attesting to my ‘gender change,’ my Social Security card and my passport, in addition to the other papers demonstrating that I’m a current Michigan resident. Each time I interact with a government agency – every time any trans person has to go through the same steps that I did – I bring the entire paper trail of my transition with me just in case the government official behind the counter looks up in confusion, disbelief, or disgust.
“For all trans people, legal name and gender changes meant being called the correct name at the doctor’s office or not being discriminated against by an employer because their name and appearance were incongruent. On top of it all, living with a name that traps you in an identity that perpetuates an inauthenticity can be so harmful to a person’s mental, emotional, and spiritual health. As a trans person myself, I knew I had to change all of my documents not only out of fear for my safety and to be seen in the world as the person I am but also to feel like I was living as my true self.”
– The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Name Change Project helps income-eligible petitioners for free; however, there is currently a wait for assigning an attorney. In Michigan, attorneys are available in Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties.
– At the Jim Toy Community Center’s KYR Project in Ann Arbor, attorneys volunteer to advise petitioners statewide, and provide possible representation or referrals. They typically meet on Friday afternoons, when UM classes are in session (September-April), but will always replay to inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (734) 995-9867
Note: The Know Your Rights Project also advises on a wide range of other legal issues, such as adoption, custody, divorce, estate matters, public benefits, etc.