Name change project simplifies complex emotional process for transgender people in Kansans

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The Kansas Reflector hosts opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of broadening the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Ellen Bertels is a lawyer for Kansas Legal Services Inc.

Let me tell you a short story about Kansas.

For years, an unwritten rule prevented Kansas-born transgender people from correcting the gender marker on their birth certificates – and therefore, on their other IDs as well. Trans Kansans, including the extraordinary Stephanie Mott, has advocated for years to change this rule. It was finally canceled in June 2019 following a lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal. The result? Trans Kansans gained access to accurate identification for the first time in nearly a decade.

The facts are clear: Accurate IDs are essential to the safety and well-being of trans people. Having accurate identity documents helps navigate essential aspects of life, such as education, healthcare, and travel. Studies show that people without specific identity documents are more likely to be turned away from public spaces, verbally harassed and physically assaulted. This change in law allowed Trans Kansans to obtain accurate identification, protect their well-being and be recognized for who they really are.

My advocacy began the day I heard about this decree of consent. My DC law classmate Hiegert and I returned from our summer internships in 2019 with the same spark of thought: what if we opened a clinic that helped low-income Trans Kansans access affordable legal aid with a gender marker and name changes?

DC and I spent two years making this idea a reality. We wrote and published the First Guide to Gender Marker Changes on Kansas Birth Certificates. We worked with attorneys and attorneys to ensure that attorneys and articling students were aware and competent in handling the specific concerns of trans clients. We traveled across the state to connect with LGBTQ advocates in southwestern Kansas to see how our advocacy could better serve rural Kansas.

I am now in my third year of advocacy for the name change. Now I run the Kansas Name Change Project at Kansas Legal Services Inc.

I provide free legal representation to transgender, non-binary, and gender diverse Kansans who wish to change their names and obtain other civil legal services. I directly represent trans people across the state of Kansas in name changes, and O provides public education and guidance through the various identity correction processes. In the long term, I hope to create a network of lawyers who can provide competent, assertive and affordable services to low-income Trans Kansans seeking all kinds of legal support.

It is a joyous job. As a cisgender woman, I can’t speak to the feeling of finalizing specific, affirmative ids. But I can tell you that every time I watch a judge sign a name change order, it’s cause for celebration.

It is also joyful to work in community with other LGBTQ defenders. I have the privilege of knowing and working with people who take care of their community, take care of their families, and fight for the dignity and freedom of Kansas’ LGBTQ community. Kansas LGBTQ Equality Advocates Strive to Put Food on the Table; they work to build communities that unconditionally support Kansans of all identities. I have the good fortune to work alongside them.

Yet the frustration persists. Trans people face many obstacles when trying to correct their identities. Even with free legal representation, they have to pay filing fees, posting fees, and fees to correct each of the credentials they want to change. They may have to change identity in different states, under different state laws. They should contact each bank, school, lender, and health care provider separately to update their records after a name change. These complicated administrative processes open up trans people to scrutiny and criticism at all times.

These barriers are a matter of trans rights, but they are also a matter of access to justice. Working with community partners, following the lead of trans and non-binary community advocates, the Kansas Name Change Project is working for a Kansas where the law frees rather than confines.

Where money does not prevent a person from living their life authentically.

Where access to justice includes people of all genders, expressions, races and abilities.

It may not be easy and it may not come anytime soon, but we will try anyway.

I would like you to join us in creating that future.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of those affected by public policy or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own comment, here.


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