What’s in a name? Well, if you’re trans, and you’ve lived your life feeling trapped in the wrong body, referred to by incorrect pronouns and called something that does not align with your gender identity or sense of self, there’s a whole lot in a name. Things that cisgender people never really have to consider.
Like the risk to personal safety and the possibility of harassment or physical harm when you have to show your I.D. to a police officer or a store clerk to cash a check — or to just about anyone — and they find your name does not match the gender you are presenting. Like the assurance that jobs you qualify for may be denied you because the I.D. with your deadname automatically outs you. Like the feeling of finally being your true, authentic self and having the name you’ve chosen for yourself finally be your real, legal name.
That’s the feeling that Julisa Abad, who went through the process herself in 2018, is trying to give to members of her community. “Every single time that you’re not recognized by your gender identity if you’re in a public place, it brings trauma,” she said. “It’s triggering. When someone wants to illegitimize someone’s transness, they throw out your deadname. Or they’ll try to find out what your deadname is. So, it can cause emotional issues and emotional distress and add to the dysphoria that some trans people deal with.”
Abad, who chose the name her mother had planned to use had she been born biologically female, said that it’s not difficult for trans people to choose their true name.
“You just know,” she said. “It’s something that we know. It’s not something that you have to struggle with or give a lot of thought. They most definitely know how they want to identify and what their name is.”
Remembering seeing her ID with the correct name on it for the first time is a powerful memory for Abad, but it’s “not only looking at it yourself. When you do little things that people take for granted — like you go buy cigarettes and they card you. Or you go to a bar, and women are free before 11 p.m., and they separate you in line by gender. Your comfort level, your mental health, navigating and getting through society and being able to have the same opportunities that others have is at risk.”
Abad, as part of her job with the Fair Michigan Justice Project and in collaboration with such partners as Ford Motor Company and Dykema law firm, began putting on name change clinics for low income trans men and women to get assistance from an attorney while filling out their legal name change forms for free. The attorney will continue on to represent their client throughout the process until and including the final hearing, when the name change request will be granted.
On Tuesday, June 14 at Corktown Health, Abad put on her fourth name change clinic. To date, she has helped guide 125 people through the process. By day’s end, with the help of 14 volunteer attorneys, she will have helped 20 more.
“I wanted to spearhead this program because what it means to my community is lifesaving,” Abad said. “People don’t realize that Michigan is an at-will state. We can be denied housing, medical services, at shelters, employment — just because of how we identify. It’s little things like that, that people take for granted.”
Not having proper ID that matches your gender identity and presentation can put trans persons in an “unsafe position,” said Abad, who pointed out that when presented with an ID that does not match, “now people who didn’t have a bias, have a bias. It makes it uncomfortable for my community. You can’t even use the bathroom or go to certain spaces because you don’t know how people are going to react.”
The first hour of the clinic takes place before those changing their names even arrive. The volunteer attorneys undergo cultural competency training led by Abad, Jay Kaplan, the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project staff attorney and Dykema attorney Heidi Naasko. Naasko said that “normalizing this process for this community is really important.”
Ford attorney Kim Ray said that her company works with “access to justice issues” and that “this is certainly a case where the process is actually fairly simple. But we’re working with clients who are breaking down barriers constantly and, for us, to be able to remove one and make this last barrier so much easier for them is why we do it.”
Ford “believes that people should have the freedom to move and pursue their dreams,” Ray went on. “When you meet and talk to these clients, they’ve just faced so much that doesn’t allow them that freedom of movement, that freedom to enjoy their lives and live as their authentic selves.”
Greg Burns is another attorney from Ford. He said he felt that as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, “there’s really no better sort of use of my skills, you know. I had the desire to really just give back. … The trans community is a marginalized community within a marginalized community. So when you’re sitting with a client and she’s telling you, ‘This is my name,’ I mean, that’s powerful to me.”
Of the 20 trans persons who came to the clinic, only one said they felt comfortable enough to speak with — and share their name with — Pride Source. Jasmine Watts works for Corktown Health. She said her first name was given to her by an old boyfriend and it just stuck.
“It means a lot to me [to have an ID that matches my chosen name] because now I feel more comfortable,” she said. “I just started my hormones last year and now this. I don’t have to go into public areas and be addressed by my deadname.”
“And to be honest,” Watts continued, “my dad and I shared the same name, but, you know, I know that my dad would want me to be happy and live my life.”