Name Change Project helps with legal obstacles in transgender transitions
January 4, 2015 12:00 AM
Sheala Reinertson of Clairton changed her name to match her identity.
By Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The name on the cards in the wallet was decidedly masculine. The person carrying the wallet, though, had started a journey to a female identity.
“When I said my [old] name, they would look at me funny and say, ‘You’re a guy, right?’ ” said the newly renamed Sheala Dawn Reinertson, 32, of Clairton. “It made it very difficult. … I wanted to change it as soon as possible.”
Ms. Reinertson is a patient care technician, not a lawyer. In 2013, “I was looking at the papers saying, ‘What the hell do I do? How the hell do I fill these out right?’ ” she said.
She also worried that the required publication of the old and new names might lead to blowback against her sons, her second wife or herself.
Luckily, she heard about The Name Change Project, which expanded to Pittsburgh a year ago and connects transgender people with volunteer attorneys. After she and her wife settled on a new name, her attorney Krista Baron, navigated the legal hurdles, including a waiver of the publication requirement.
“It was very, very rewarding,” said Ms. Baron, who has done the legal work on two name changes. “She was so appreciative, as was my other client. You can really tell that it makes a big difference to their lives.”
The Name Change Project, launched seven years ago in New York City by the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, expanded to Pittsburgh in late 2013 because two of the fund’s partners — Reed Smith and the Bank of New York Mellon — have big offices here.
The project has assisted in 1,700 name changes nationally and found “very strong demand for services in Pittsburgh,” said fund executive director Michael D. Silverman.
The Garden of Peace Project, Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition have helped get out the word. In its first year here, the project has helped to complete 19 name changes, with another 17 in process and 23 people on a waiting list.
The project also has found goodwill in the city’s legal community. An October training session offered Downtown by BNY Mellon and Reed Smith resulted in recruitment of about 30 attorneys from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Jones Day, K&L Gates, Morgan Lewis & Bockius, Tucker Arensberg and PNC Bank, according to Mr. Silverman.
“I knew how to change a name for a corporation, but the process of changing a person’s name is really different,” said Ms. Baron, who works in Reed Smith’s Corporate and Securities Group and has taken the lead on the name change effort.
“Everybody should be comfortable with and have their own identity,” said John H. Smith, managing director and senior counsel at BNY Mellon, who has consulted with three project clients, including one who has completed the name change process.
Changing a name is “not a very complicated legal process,” he added. The person must petition the Court of Common Pleas, undergo a background check, publish the old and new names in a legal journal and a newspaper, and assure a judge that the name change isn’t being sought to avoid obligations or the police.
Many transgender people lack the resources to pay an attorney to help, Mr. Silverman said, because they are “unemployed or underemployed because of the discrimination they face.”
The project connects them to attorneys who will do the work pro bono and sometimes pays the publication fees.
Getting a name change “would’ve been a lot harder, definitely,” without the project, said Alice Rose Millage, 31, of Etna. “Having to do all of the paperwork and documents by myself would have been stressful for me and would have cost more money.”
Having a male name made her “afraid to socialize,” Ms. Millage said. “Especially when someone asks for identification, you tend to experience harassment.” And forget about going to the gym, she said.
She signed up for the project in early spring and had her hearing before a judge in September.
Her new first name, she said, comes from the zombie-slaying Milla Jovovich character in the “Resident Evil” movie series. Her new middle name evokes beauty and thorns. Thus empowered, she enrolled in a gym in November.
Most of the fund’s clients, like Ms. Millage, are single people without kids, Mr. Silverman said. “Some have families including children,” he said. “Often that involves working with their spouses and their families to deal with the changes in all of their lives.”
Ms. Reinertson, who served in the Navy for eight years and is about to start nursing school, has two sons from a prior marriage. When she was still presenting as a man, she married a woman who has one son.
The kids have handled the changes well, she said.
“The trick is, the younger it’s brought up, the easier it is, because they have less stigma about what a male gender role is, versus a female gender role. … As long as the kids know that you still love them and that they’re still at the center of your thoughts, they’re very resilient and very accepting.”
Her wife helped her to choose a new name. A judge made it official in October.
“Now, when I show my ID, it matches who I am,” Ms. Reinertson said. “And when I go to school, no one is going to know that I was once a guy. They’ll know me as who I really am.”
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord.
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