"'Shayne Patrick' sounds like a strong name, you know?"
Shayne Patrick Stanley, a trans man and facilitator of the Hearts & Ears trans discussion group, found that when he chose the right name, it worked to alter his personality—the name reflected the person he wanted to be, and he became that person.
"And I've gone from becoming a very passive person, a very quiet person who sits in the corner in a party, to somebody who can sit in a room and run a group, and lead people, and talk to them, and counsel them," he said after one of the discussion group's meetings. "It made me feel like, 'Yeah! I care about myself, I love myself. I'm proud of who I am.'"
For trans people, changing names can be an important part of changing gender identity. For years Maryland citizens have been able to change their names and gender markers on most identity documents, such as Social Security cards and driver's licenses. But in March of this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law which removes almost every barrier to changing the gender marker on one's birth certificate. It was announced in March that Gov. Larry Hogan would let the bill go into effect without his signature, so beginning Oct. 1 of this year, transgender, gender nonconforming, and intersex people across the state can more easily change their markers. All you need is a letter from a licensed health care practitioner stating that you have "undergone treatment appropriate for the purpose of sex transition" or that you have "been diagnosed with an intersex condition," according to the law.
The old law was prohibitive for a number of reasons. It required proof of undergoing some kind of sexual-reassignment surgery, it required a court date with exorbitant filing fees, and even those who cleared these barriers with surgery and money were simply given an amended document rather than a brand-new one.
"No one should have to go before a judge and have the judge determine whether or not they're gonna count your gender as legally recognized," said Patrick Paschall, executive director of FreeState Legal, a Baltimore organization that provides free legal services to low-income LGBTQ people. "And so the law removes that requirement all together."
Ninety percent of transgender and gender nonconforming people in the national 2011 Transgender Discrimination Survey reported having faced some sort of discrimination, or have chosen to hide their identities for fear of discrimination, from employers. Every time a person with documents that don't match their preferred name, gender identity, or physical appearance is required to present them, the possibility of being outed becomes a serious fear; going to the bank or drinking with friends becomes an exercise in a stranger challenging one's own hard-fought identity. The birth certificate could out a transgender person, even if every other document had been updated. That's why when the bill was passed into law, the folks at FreeState Legal were "elated," according to Paschall. "Regardless of whether they're low income or high income, regardless of whether they've had surgeries or not, regardless of whether they've changed their name or not, regardless of what their circumstance is, nearly every transgender person across the state is gonna benefit under this law."
The gender change law does a great job at addressing the issue of birth-certificate changes, probably because FreeState helped draft and lobby for it. But this accomplishment shouldn't distract from the fixture of discrimination that transgender people contend with every day.
"But it's sad that as far as we come with equality and stuff, we're trying to fight for as much equality for transgender individuals as we can, you know that a lot of the government agencies aren't following suit," Ken Jiretsu, a trans man and member of the Hearts & Ears trans discussion group, said.
Government agencies such as the office of Social Security, the Office of Child Support Enforcement, and Medicare oftentimes "don't communicate with each other" in order to ease the otherwise-arduous process of changing the name and gender on all of one's identity documents, according to Jiretsu. For him, the Office of Child Support Enforcement was especially discriminatory.
"Went in there to get my name changed, just so I could receive the child support checks for my children, and when I went and explained it to her, she looked at me like I had two heads," Jiretsu said. "The minute she went back there to tell the folks, all I heard was laughing. The whole time. And when I went back there, people [were] still snickering and laughing. But I had to go in there to do what I had to do, you know?"
The rewards of the struggle, however, are incalculable.
"Once I was able to get my name, I've been able to just do so much more, and be more confident and walk up to people and say 'Hey, this is my name. So, call me this—don't call me anything else,'" Alicia Horton, a trans woman and former client of FreeState, said of her own name.
"It felt really cool when my name was legally changed, but once I got that gender marker on my license, I really felt like I was a really whole person," Stanley said of the process. "Mental health-wise, it made me feel like I was finally who I had always been. And that society accepted me for who I am and what I am. At least the state does, and the federal government does."
"It's just been a lot more reaffirming," Horton said. "It also helps people if, you know, one day I don't pass or something like that, and they see my name as Alicia, they automatically associate that with a female. So, it works." Similarly, Jiretsu noted that because of how feminine his given name was, "it was just a no-brainer" to change it, and to change it to something intentionally masculine.
This past November, FreeState launched the Story of My Name Project to provide a space for transgender and gender nonconforming people, as well as their allies, to share their stories; both Horton and Jiretsu participated in the project. Tyler Mendelsohn, coordinator of the project, has found that the stories capture the universal importance of chosen names, and their profoundly positive effect on those who have undergone the name-change process.
"The way that people decide upon a name that works for them is so personal, and there's been no two stories that have been in any way similar," Mendelsohn said.
The stories within the project tend to detail both the emotional and legal experiences of changing one's name. This not only informs those folks looking into changing their names; it also humanizes the topic, and helps to clarify that changing one's name is a deeply personal process rather than only a matter of filling out tedious paperwork.
"When it came in the mail, 'I just can't believe I just got this done,'" Jiretsu said. "It is just a sense of relief, like this big weight off your shoulders that you had been carrying around."