Court Costs and Complexities Still Remain in Legally Transitioning

Donnie TC Denome proudly presents the court order officially changing their name. (Courtesy of Donnie TC Denome)

MasterCard should make one of their “Priceless” commercials about me. Six-month supply of injectable testosterone and injection supplies: $100. Fees to change name and gender marker on official documents: $688 (so far). Relief that my long legal nightmare is (almost) over: priceless.

I first filed to change my name and gender marker legally in January. After enduring the “are you sure you don’t need a lawyer?” question from my parents for the millionth time, I strode into the Probate Clerk’s office and slid my documents through the opening in the bottom of the bulletproof window. At the end of the long legal process, now, in mid-March, I stand confused and annoyed at the process but also relieved it wasn’t worse.

There are six forms you need to fill out in California to change your name and gender legally, plus a background check form required by my county and a doctor’s letter stating that I am a Certified Official Trans person.

The forms are surprisingly mundane, given the emotional transition process they represent. Name, address, county, courthouse address, declarations that you are not currently in jail … every single feeling a transgender person could have about legally transitioning boiled down to a fillable box on a PDF labeled “Reason for name change (explain).”

After filing, all I could do was wait and fume that the process cost $435 just for the court order, plus $25.50 for each certified copy. My saving grace is that the court didn’t require me to advertise my name change in the newspaper. California, thankfully, has realized that forcing trans people to advertise their legal name changes might put a fair number of people at risk, as opposed to most states where advertising one’s name change in the newspaper is required.

The rest of the process was anything but streamlined. The Social Security Administration needs to see both a court order and their own form if you want to change your name and/or gender with them. The DMV needs a court order to update your name, but only their own form with a doctor’s signature to update your gender marker. The Department of Public Health needs to see a certified copy of the court order, plus a doctor’s letter, to change your name and gender marker on your birth certificate.

I returned to the courthouse on March 14. I didn’t have to appear in front of a judge — which both relieved and disappointed me — so instead I stood again in the Probate Clerk’s office as the clerk of the court made and certified copies for me.

The SSA was easy. I spent more time waiting than actually updating my documents with the agent. So was the DMV — the worst part was having my photograph taken. (“Let’s try that again,” the agent said as she frowned at my presumably horrific photograph on the computer.)

The one problem I’ve run into is Wells Fargo bank, who told me they wouldn’t update my name and gender marker on my account until I showed them an updated permanent photo ID. (My temporary license isn’t good enough for them, apparently.) They cited the PATRIOT ACT.

I read the PATRIOT ACT. Nowhere does it say that banks have to require photo ID of their customers, just “reasonable procedures for … verifying the identity” of their customers.

But frankly, the process was easier than I expected. Nobody questioned what I was doing, or why, or gave me the all-too-familiar runaround of transphobia. Aside from the Wells Fargo people, I didn’t run into trouble.

That isn’t to say the process is easy, or that it isn’t taxing in other ways. I’m lucky enough to be able to afford the $688 it’s cost me so far. The Superior Court does allow people to request a fee waiver if they cannot pay court costs, but not everyone will qualify under the waiver.

In particular, one of the questions asks for the person filling it out to list the incomes of anyone they rely on for support. College student with transphobic parents who won’t help you pay your court costs? Out of luck, most likely.

Beyond that, not every agency even offers a fee waiver. It reminds me of the debate over requiring photo ID to vote. Not everyone can afford a driver’s license or state ID card, or the fees to amend one. It’s the same with the fees to update my birth certificate.

There is a bill underway in California that would make it easier for transgender people to update their state-issued legal documents, but this alone is not enough. We need comprehensive reform like this across the nation, both at the state and federal level.

I fear we’re not going to get it anytime soon. With Republicans in charge in both the federal government and many state governments, these issues are unlikely to pass. Plus, there’s always the argument of “why are we making such a big deal out of something that affects so few people?”

Because it’s such a huge issue for the people it affects. Think about how often you use your driver’s license or state ID card. Think about all the forms that require you to list your Social Security number or all the times you’ve needed to show your birth certificate as identification. Once I receive my updated driver’s license, I can get on an airplane without being misgendered and misnamed at the ticket counter and in security. I can apply for a job without having to explain my situation. Having proper ID means I have more control over who knows I’m trans.

The issue doesn’t affect that many people but for those of us who it affects, it means the world.

This is an issue I will fight for. And good allyship means you should be fighting for this, too.

Donnie TC Denome PZ ‘20 is a transmasc queerdo and future public health major from the San Francisco Bay Area. They’re probably asleep or knitting as you read this.