Legal project helps transgender people get a name change

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Job interviews are stressful enough without having to explain why you're a woman named Bill or a man named Frieda.

"What we hear most of the time is that people aren't going for jobs because if your name is Jason and you look female, people are confused," said Michael David Battle, executive director of the Garden of Peace Project, a Pittsburgh-based advocacy group for transgender people and other sexual minorities. "We've heard of people going on interviews ... and [interviewers] get angry at them. 'Why are you deceiving me?' No, I'm not deceiving you."

Having a name that doesn't match your appearance can complicate efforts to rent an apartment, attend a university, get health care or even deal with a traffic stop. But getting a name change to match a gender change, which involves petitioning the court and attending a hearing, also can be daunting.

That's why the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund last month brought to Pittsburgh its Name Change Project, which helps transgender men and women navigate the legal work needed to modify their monikers. The New York City-based fund is working with the 1-year-old Garden of Peace Project, but also with the venerable law firm Reed Smith and the financial giant Bank of New York Mellon to make names match genders.

"For transgender people, the name that they were given at birth doesn't match who they truly are," said the fund's executive director, Michael Silverman. "It can create instances of discrimination and humiliation that lead transgender people to simply not access services."

Dawn Hill plans to be one of the first Pittsburghers to take advantage of the program. Now 18 years old and a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, she came out as gay as a 10th-grader at Carrick High School, then began identifying as a woman in 11th grade.

That made high school "pretty interesting," she said recently.

Putting her given, male name on job applications and medical paperwork also has made for some awkward moments. Now an adult, she doesn't want her every official encounter to necessitate a discussion of her change.

"I want everything to legally say Dawn Hill, because I want everything to coincide with my identity that I feel and how I look, appearance-wise," she said.

A few weeks ago, she shared those feelings with her endocrinologist, who referred her to Mr. Battle. His organization has helped around two dozen people change their names but has limited resources.

In 2013, though, the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund reached out to the Garden of Peace Project with an offer of enhanced legal muscle.

The fund started its Name Change Project in New York City five years ago, and has helped around 1,300 people there. It just expanded the program to a handful of cities, including Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Albany, N.Y.; and Rochester, N.Y.

Two of the fund's corporate partners in New York City are Reed Smith and BNY Mellon, and they agreed to provide pro bono legal help here, too. When the call for volunteers went out in their Pittsburgh offices, a total of 25 attorneys stepped up.

"I think a person should be allowed to call him or herself whatever they want to call him or herself, and should be comfortable with their name," said Maxine Kisilinsky, managing counsel for BNY Mellon Legal Affairs. "Particularly if they have a name that doesn't match their exterior persona, that can cause problems. If you're pulled over by a police officer, and your license says Tim, and you don't look like a Tim, that can cause problems."

Legally, all you have to do is file a petition with the Court of Common Pleas, attend a hearing, convince a judge that you aren't trying to dodge creditors, law enforcement or family obligations, and then advertise the new name in local publications.

"Reed Smith attorneys assist name change clients throughout the entire name change process to a successful conclusion," Tyree Jones, a Reed Smith partner and director of global diversity and inclusion, wrote in an email response to questions. "This includes helping each client gather the necessary information; obtain fingerprints; draft and file the petition; complete a judgment search; and prepare for and attend the hearing.

If the client can't afford the filing fees and other costs, Reed Smith will pay those fees, he added.

"This isn't complicated legal work," Ms. Kisilinsky said. "It's just intimidating to someone who doesn't have any experience and any exposure to the legal process."

Mr. Battle, who changed his name in 2011 when he was living in Florida, said the process can often be transformative.

When name and presentation conflict, he said, "I have to explain to you my entire medical history. When you're trans, that's one of the few times you have to constantly explain your medical history."

After the name change, people who may have subsisted at the margins of society and the economy often feel confident enough to go mainstream.

Ms. Hill said she's anxious to meet her name-change attorney and get the process started.

"I could have done it on my own. However, it would've been very difficult because I would have been looking in all of the wrong places," she said. "This process may be tedious, and it may be a long wait. However, it is very much worth it. If you do truly identify yourself as the gender you believe yourself to be, you should seek these services."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord.

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