The transgender community has gained more civil liberties during the administration of President Barack Obama than at any other time in history.
Through two executive orders, Obama has prohibited federal agencies and contractors from discriminating against workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Consequently, transgender people have the right to transition at work, to be called by their chosen name and the pronouns of their choice, to have their employee records updated, to use restrooms and lockers consistent with their gender identity. And they have the right to privacy when it comes to their status as transgender people and their medical information.
The Obama administration has also streamlined the process for changing a person’s name or gender on passports and with the Social Security Administration. And the Affordable Care Act bans sex discrimination in health care settings and in insurance plans. Almost every insurance company is now required to offer plans that include transition-related care and health services, which might include hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery.
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Transgender people and advocacy organizations now worry that transgender people could lose many of those rights in one day — the day Donald Trump takes office as president.
Trump’s anti-LGBT rhetoric is virulent, and he has pledged to rescind many of Obama’s executive orders on the day he is inaugurated, Jan. 20.
Legal and transgender advocacy organizations have rallied since Election Day to help transgender people change their name and gender on identity documents – especially passports and Social Security cards, which have become easier to change under the Obama administration.
“I think we should be very concerned about (Trump) rolling back the executive orders that Obama signed,” said Mat dos Santos, the ACLU of Oregon’s legal director.
The ACLU of Oregon, as well as LGBT organizations such as Basic Rights Oregon and the Q Center are now encouraging transgender people to change their identity documents as quickly as possible before Inauguration Day.
Identity documents, including driver’s licenses, birth certificates and passports, are an official reflection of a person’s identity.
“They say who you are,” said Andrea Zekis, Basic Rights Oregon’s policy director. “Having documentation that allows them to navigate their lives with as little harm as possible has been important for many transgender people.”
“If you’ve ever lost your wallet, you know how frustrating it is not to have your driver’s license or your ID card,” dos Santos said. “Folks who are going through the transgender process and who are trying to get on with their life now are suddenly afraid that they will lose their wallet permanently and that the critically important documents, like passports and Social Security cards, could be more difficult to obtain.”
We use ID cards, whether it’s a driver’s license or a passport, all the time and with hardly a second thought. We flash them when buying alcohol, when depositing money at a bank, when being pulled over while driving, or when getting a prescription filled. Applying for jobs, renting or buying a home, opening a bank account, and securing health insurance all require proof of identification. People seeking social services, such as food stamps or Medicaid and retired people who begin receiving their Social Security payments must show ID.
If a transgender person’s identity documents do not accurately reflect their name and gender, they could face discrimination and harassment, be barred from receiving benefits such as Social Security or be inadvertently outed as transgender if, for example, a background check undergone during the job application process reveals a different name and gender from the one a transgender person uses.
Inconsistent identity documents raise “problems we aren’t talking about regularly,” dos Santos said, which is a big reason dos Santos and others are encouraging transgender people to change all of their identity documents at once.
In mid-November, the ACLU of Oregon trained more than 90 attorneys interested in helping transgender people navigate the process. Since then, the ACLU of Oregon has matched lawyers with almost 300 people who want legal assistance. (Hiring a lawyer is not necessary to change name and gender on identity documents, but some people prefer the assistance.) “It’s been a monumental effort,” dos Santos said.
On Nov. 29 and 30, more than 250 transgender people attended clinics in Portland and Eugene on how to change names and gender markers on identity documents. Jointly organized by the ACLU of Oregon, Basic Rights Oregon and the Q Center, the clinics talked about the process and documentation needed to change every piece of identity documentation. Outside In hosted a Dec. 8 clinic on changing passports.
Attorneys and physicians were present at the clinics to answer people’s questions and help them fill out applicable forms.
Dos Santos, Zekis and others said the questions and concerns transgender people expressed during these clinics ran the gamut – whether one document needed to be changed before another, whether one could change only their gender but not their name, whether it was necessary to have a letter from a medical provider stating that the person has undergone hormone therapy or a particular surgery, and so on.
“People not knowing where to start is the biggest thing,” said Erica Weggener, Outside In’s transgender services coordinator.
Zekis said transgender people already feel wary and deeply anxious about approaching government agencies, courtrooms and bureaucracies. On top of that, many people find the process necessary to change their identity documents convoluted and daunting.
“It’s not really centralized,” Weggener said. “Every single agency, every single level of government, every company maintains their own records.”
“There is so much for folks to navigate that it can be overwhelming,” Zekis said. “People change their names all the time. A lot of these regulations are talking about gender markers.”
Oregon’s laws dictating how people change their name and gender markers are considered fairly streamlined and progressive compared to other states. Oregon law is not expected to be affected by any action the Trump administration might take – but changing state documentation, such as a driver’s license, is often the first step transgender people take, especially if they want to change federal documents, such as a passport.
Transgender people can change their name and gender via court order. In order to get the court order, a person must fill out a “Petition for Name and Sex Change,” which is available at any courthouse in Oregon, along with a declaration supporting the person’s petition to change their name and gender.
The paperwork is filed and a public notice is posted for two weeks. The person must appear before a judge who signs a judgment issuing the court order. A public notice of the change makes the name and gender changes official.
To legally change gender, a judge must find that a transgender person has “undergone surgical, hormonal, or other treatment appropriate for you for the purpose of gender transition” or that “sexual reassignment has been completed.”
People often assume that “sexual reassignment” means that hormone therapy or a particular surgery has been completed. But the law is meant to be read more broadly than that, dos Santos said, which often leads to confusion.
“It’s broad to capture all levels of ‘completion,’” he said.
“The process of undergoing any kind of transition-related treatment is deeply personal. (It’s not) something we want a judge deciding,” dos Santos said. “If a person feels like they are sufficiently transitioned for needing a name and gender change, I think the answer is yes, they can get their name and gender changed.”
With the court order in hand, a transgender person can change all of their state documents: A driver’s license can be changed by filling out an application for a new ID and by filling out the DMV’s “Change of Gender Designation Form.” Birth certificates can be changed through the state’s Center for Health and Vital Statistics.
Prior to June 2010, a person had to present proof of sex reassignment surgery in order to have their passport changed. Currently, a transgender person can submit a driver’s license and other proof of identity with their correct name and gender. In certain cases, a letter from a doctor confirming that a person has received treatment for gender transition is also necessary.
“Because of the urgency, people can attempt to get those changes done in advance” of changing state documents, dos Santos said, but it makes getting a letter from the person’s doctor – which has to be carefully worded and contain particular information about the sort of medical treatment a person has received – necessary.
At the legal clinics in November, Zekis said there were some transgender people who live in Oregon but were born in a state where it is difficult, if not impossible, to change their birth certificate. “The physician’s letter allows for folks who live in states that have difficult requirements … to get their passport changed.”
Changing identity documents is also costly, as much as $1,000 for the lot. The filing fee and certification of the court order alone costs $115. The costs associated with driver’s licenses and passports are the same fees as if someone were applying for a new ID.
The court filing fee can be waived in cases of financial distress, and resources like Outside In’s ID Project provides financial assistance.
Transgender Oregonians traveled from every part of the state, including rural eastern and southwestern Oregon, to attend the clinics in late November, Zekis said. “It was touching to me,” she said.
More clinics are scheduled in December. Zekis said many people may have put off changing their identity documents until now. Life happens, especially for a community of people who are disproportionately unemployed and impoverished.
“They knew it was something they had to get done, and suddenly it feels very urgent,” she said.
Any action the Trump administration could take that rolls back the rights and liberties of the gay and transgender community is, at this point, rumor and speculation. But advocacy organizations have chosen to proceed with an abundance of caution and action.
“We don’t know how easy it will be after January,” dos Santos said.
The National Center for Transgender Equality has an ID Document Center, providing resources and rules in every state, including Oregon, on changing identity documents. It is available at www.transequality.org
Basic Rights Oregon has information on changing name and gender markers on identity documents.