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This Pro Bono Clinic Guides Transgender People Through Legal Bureaucracy

It’s not easy to change your name or gender marker on official identification documents. This group at John Marshall Law School can help.

Kelly Burden Lindstrom leads a group of law students to run the pro bono clinic.   Photo: Courtesy of John Marshall Law School

This January, like many Chicagoans, Gia Guerrero was dreaming of warmer weather and planning a summer vacation with her sister. The 28-year-old and her sister wanted to travel to Argentina, but during the planning process, Gia realized that as a transgender woman, traveling through customs and leaving the United States would be difficult and potentially dangerous.

“I wasn’t too worried about changing my name and having my ID updated until that moment. I realized then that I can’t really leave the country and be out. My ID doesn’t match how I present myself,” she explains. “And while the U.S. is really supportive of transgender rights, excluding some states, in other countries there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be able or allowed to present myself authentically.”

So Guerrero and her sister put the trip planning on hold. Months passed, and one day in early July, Guerrero received a message from one of her coworkers at the Lurie Children’s Hospital about a new pro bono clinic and program launched by the John Marshall Law School.

“I saw the program and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was exactly what I needed to help me go through with changing my name and gender on my driver’s license and passport,” Guerrero says. She called the phone number almost immediately, and was accepted days later.

John Marshall Law School launched the name and gender marker change program this summer. The program gives legal assistance and guidance to transgender individuals who are navigating the complicated process of changing official legal documents to reflect their true gender identity.

According to the school, only 59 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming people have updated the gender marker on their driver’s licenses or state identification cards since transitioning, while only 26 percent have updated their passport.

Transgender individuals are presented with a difficult choice when their gender identity does not match their official identification documents; they either are unable to present their gender identity authentically for fear of dealing with harassment or discrimination, or they are outed as being transgender whenever they present an ID.

This conflict not only has serious negative psychological consequences for transgender individuals, it also presents very difficult barriers regarding applying for jobs, signing a lease, opening a bank account, and traveling within the U.S. or to other countries.

“Before this project I didn’t really realize the significance and the impact of having your name changed as a transgender individual,” says Kelly Burden Lindstrom, supervising adjunct professor and staff attorney. “I sort of equated it to getting your name changed when you’re married. But through this process I began to realize how problematic it is for your ID to not match how you present yourself.”

Guerrero is one of the program’s first clients.

“When I went to meet Kelly and the rest of the law school students for the initial meeting last month, it was my first time downtown as my authentic self. I had done my hair and makeup and was wearing heels and was so anxious but also excited,” Guerrero says.

The name change is the easier part: Burden Lindstrom and a group of law students review each case and work with clients to prepare necessary paperwork. The legal team files the petition on the client’s behalf. After the waiting period, usually six to eight weeks, a hearing is scheduled where a judge will approve or deny the name change petition.

“Once a name change petition is approved, our clients can take that court order and present it to the DMV and other agencies as proof for a name change,” Burden Lindstrom explains. “With gender marker changes, it’s a different process. In those instances, most government agencies require a physician’s note explaining that the individual has taken the necessary medical steps to transition to their authentic gender.”

This part of the legal process can be particularly stressful and intimidating for transgender individuals who cannot afford or are not ready to go under the knife. (The law does not require individuals to have gender reassignment surgery; less invasive surgeries, such as facial feminization, count toward the requirement, but hormone therapy does not.)

For Guerrero, she says the process will change her life.

“My hearing date when I will hopefully get my name changed will be on September 15. My birthday is the next day, and I scheduled the hearing for the day before on purpose. After my name change petition is hopefully approved, I’m going straight to the DMV with Kelly and the students to get my new driver’s license with an updated picture, name, and gender change,” Guerrero says. “And the next day I’m going to have a big going out party and will go to a bar for my birthday with my friends. I’m excited to finally have an ID that matches who’s walking into the club. I’m going to celebrate.”

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