The Pro Bono Clinic at The John Marshall Law School has launched a new program to help transgender individuals navigate the legal hurdles that come with changing one’s name and gender.
The Name and Gender Marker Change Project aims to help transgender individuals reach an essential step in claiming their identity — to ensure their official documents match their declared identities.
Under the auspices of the program, law students will assist individuals by filling out the forms needed to change these documents, getting fees waived if necessary and even going to court with them, said Kelly A. Burden, an adjunct professor who will oversee the project.
“You don’t need a lawyer to do this, but it can be incredibly frustrating and intimidating to do on your own,” Burden said.
Both Burden and Michael Ziri, public policy director for the LGBT advocacy group Equality Illinois, said the process of changing a person’s gender on official documents can be time consuming, expensive and confusing for non-attorneys.
“This project, it’s a resource to help individuals navigate that process,” Ziri said.
Getting a person’s name changed is relatively straightforward compared to changing a person’s gender marker, Burden said.
But in order to change a gender marker on an official document, some kind of medical record is needed. And it varies from document to document, Burden said.
With a driver’s license, a transgender person needs to produce a letter from a doctor indicating they’re undergoing some kind of therapy for gender dysphoria, like counseling, Burden said.
By contrast, in order for a transgender individual to change the gender mark on their birth certificate, they need to produce records showing they have undergone some kind of gender surgery.
Burden noted that the definition of surgery in this instance can be loosely defined. A transgender person would not have to have gender reassignment surgery; breast augmentation surgery would qualify under the law, but hormone therapy alone would not.
Ziri said transgender individuals have a right to identification documents that match their identity.
“The person has the dignity to have the documents to show who they are — their authentic self,” he said.
But having mismatching documents — like a driver’s license that identifies a transgender woman as a man — can harm a transgender person’s chances of getting a job or traveling through airport security.
“All of those little things we take for granted ... are much more difficult if your identity doesn’t match what you are on your documents,” Burden said.
Ziri cited a 2011 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force that reported on how often transgender individuals are mistreated for having mismatching documents.
According to the survey, 40 percent of respondents said they had been harassed after presenting mismatching documents. Three percent of them were attacked or assaulted, while 15 percent were asked to leave an establishment.
The same survey found that only 21 percent of transgender individuals who have transitioned have updated all of their documents to reflect their new identity.
The project formally launched on June 30, but its development began earlier this year when Equality Illinois reached out to the Pro Bono Clinic about this project.
Since 2014, Equality Illinois has published a 44-page self-help guide for transgender individuals seeking to change their names and gender markers on their documents. The guide was developed in partnership with Seyfarth Shaw LLP.
But Ziri and Burden indicated the advocacy group was still getting calls of assistance from individuals in the LGBT community.
Burden said both herself and the clinic’s law students began training to learn the nuances of state and federal law regarding name and gender marker changes earlier this semester. Attorneys from Seyfarth Shaw assisted them.
A spokesman with the firm did not return a request for comment.
The pro bono clinic currently has nine of its 20-something law students working on the project and they have a caseload of six clients, Burden said.
Burden said she anticipates their caseload to grow as the word spreads about the project. She said her goal is to not turn any clients away. However, she said the clinic may not be able to help transgender individuals living in downstate Illinois.
“There’s a really big need downstate. I don’t know geographically if we can cover all over the state of Illinois,” Burden said.
She noted that one of their current John Marshall Law students will also assist the monthly help desk the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois runs at the Daley Center. The help desk also assists transgender individuals with their name-gender marker change needs.
Transformative Justice attorney Tanvi Sheth said the help desk assisted 114 individuals with name and gender marker change requests last year; this year, they have already assisted 75 people.
“We are seeing an ever increasing need for holistic legal services for transgender and gender non-conforming people,” Sheth said, adding that the partnership between the two projects will “increase our capacity to provide much needed services to the underserved transgender community.”