Inside the front doors of the Family Tree Clinic in St. Paul is a small room with just enough space for a desk and two chairs. It’s not flashy, but it’s not supposed to be: it's supposed to be safe.
It’s here where attorney CB Baga and a team of volunteer attorneys hold office hours several times a month in case anyone from the LGBTQ community might need legal help.
"We've seen everything from landlord housing, to discrimination, to consumer debt and bankruptcy, to conciliation court,” said Baga, who started the clinic four years ago as an associate at Faegre Baker Daniels, where they now work full time.
It’s the only place in the state where LGBTQ clients can go for such wide-ranging legal advice, and they’ve become experts over the years on helping people change their names and gender markers on state documents, a service that a growing number of people are seeking out. The law clinic has seen more than 200 clients.
“Legal help is tricky because it’s only one small facet of whatever someone is facing, but often it’s a facet that can be life changing,” Baga said. “If someone’s documents don’t reflect their actual name and gender they could be outed next time they’re ID’d. That could be in a bar in an unsafe situation, that could be applying for a job where it only takes one person along the review line to quietly throw that application away.”
In Minnesota, a name change requires a trip to the courthouse to fill out paperwork and attend a hearing. Minnesotans used to have to provide a doctor's note in order to change their gender marker on their driver's license from either M for Male or F for female. The Department of Vehicle Services eliminated that requirement a few years ago, and it now offers an X option for gender-nonbinary Minnesotans, or those who don't consider their gender male or female. But for birth certificates and passports, a doctor’s note is still required.
And the process varies dramatically from state-to-state. For example, in Tennessee, residents aren’t allowed to change their gender marker on their birth certificate. The volunteers at the law clinic have to keep up with the laws in all 50 states.
“It’s very specific to where the person resides or where they were born,” said J. Singleton, a volunteer with the clinic who works for Legal Aid. “Last month I was working with a client where the state required evidence of a sex change operation, and then the question becomes, what does that mean? What type of operation does it need to be? Getting into the details of other states can get pretty complicated.”
It can also be expensive, and Baga said the legal system isn’t always intuitive or welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
"The person that is comfortable going to the courthouse to get help with their gender marker name change form from the self help desk there doesn't need us,” Baga said. “The people that really need our help are the people that do not feel safe doing that and in some cases are not safe doing that."
That's part of the reason they picked Family Tree Clinic for their office hours. It's a community clinic for reproductive and sexual health services, and it's already known as a safe place in the LGBTQ community. And most of the clients that show up to the free law clinic hear about it through word of mouth in the community.
“It’s just how our community has learned to navigate a world that isn’t safe for many of us,” Baga said. “So we knew we had to be in community spaces that the community already knew is safe, otherwise we wouldn’t reach the most vulnerable.”
Charlie Johnson heard about the free law clinic through the Minneapolis Queer Exchange Facebook page. They were in debt after getting gender affirmation surgery and facing a possible court battle. After working with Baga, Johnson was able to get a settlement on hospital debt.
"To go there and know that your pronouns will be respected and whatever legal issue you are having, the provider will be competent in being able to respond to that issue, is just an incredible and very stress relieving experience,” said Johnson, who also plans to go to the clinic for help changing their gender marker on their birth certificate.
Baga, who goes by the pronoun “they,” personally knows the difference changing state documents can make.
They’ve lived with the day-to-day dysphoria of being called the wrong name or being identified by the wrong gender. They recently corrected their gender marker on state documents, but Baga hasn't legally changed their name yet.
"It’s a step I’m not ready to take yet. It's kind of absurd to admit that the lawyer that specializes in this area hasn't done it, but I haven't,” Baga said. “I totally appreciate the stress that it is and the feeling of relief when you know it's going to be correct."
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