For some transgender people, a legal name change is a big step forward
Updated: 1:32 p.m.
For about three years, the legal documents required for Andrew Stoebe to legally change his name gathered dust in a manila folder in a drawer where he keeps things he’s afraid to throw away.
Even though he publicly came out as a trans man three and half years ago and goes by the name Andrew, that’s not what his ID says. He was too intimidated by the legal paperwork and the cost.
“I hadn’t filled them out because the wording on the documents is kind of confusing. And the last thing I wanted to do was to turn them in and something would be wrong,” he said.
Stoebe was one of 20 participants in a recent free legal clinic in Minneapolis to help mostly trans or nonbinary people start the process of legally changing their name. For people like Stoebe, it’s important because the legal name change is another step in the process of, as he puts it, “making everything match.”
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“Generally, you ask people to call you by a certain name, even if it’s not legally that name, and they’ll do it out of respect and out of compassion,” Stoebe said. “But having it actually on a legal document, on your birth certificate, on your bank statement, it’s just affirmation after affirmation – and it’s really kind of an emotional validation too.”
Stoebe hasn’t told his family yet, but plans to celebrate with friends when the legal change is official. He said the legal name change is about moving forward in your life as the person you are.
The legal name change clinic has been hosted by Robins Kaplan LLP since 2017, when they partnered with LGBTQ advocacy group OutFront Minnesota. Robins Kaplan LLP is an MPR underwriter.
Since then, at least 245 people have been walked through how to legally change their names by attorneys volunteering their time.
Holly Dolejsi is a partner at Robins Kaplan who has worked on the clinics. She first meets privately with clients for about a half hour. During that time, attorneys explain everything that’s required to file the paperwork, as well as the restrictions on name changes. For instance, you can’t change your name to escape an arrest warrant.
Then, Dolejsi says attorneys explain to clients that they need to bring two witnesses to court, and what to expect from a judge at the hearing, which lasts about 15 minutes. She said many judges enjoy the process.
“Most of their day is spent hearing disputes. Instead, they’re going to have someone that’s going to come to them and say, ‘Judge, I just want to change my name so that it aligns with my identity,’” Dolejsi said. “Judges are typically really happy to do that, so I think when they hear that, it helps put their mind at ease.”
But the court order for a legal change is only the first step. After the hearing, clients can use the court order to change their names on credit cards, drivers licenses and birth certificates. A person can even change their gender marker on their birth certificate.
Safety and urgency
Dolejsi said the clients at the workshop range in age from people in their 60s to young people who’ve known they’re trans most of their lives.
One thing that motivates many of the participants is safety.
“Especially now, people come to us afraid because maybe they present one way, then when they show their ID, it creates a lot of questions, and they start to feel unsafe,” Dolejsi said. “They come to us wanting a solution for that. And to be able to give that to them helps them feel they’re starting on this process towards safety.”
Kat Rohn, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, said the current political climate has fed some of the urgency people feel to legally change their names. More than 150 pieces of legislation targeting gay or transgender people were considered in state legislatures across the country this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We just simply don’t know what might happen. While here in Minnesota, people feel fairly comfortable, nationally, that climate is contributing to a lot of angst,” Rohn said. “Having consistent documents gives you a layer of protection against any future changes to policy.”
Rohn hopes the clinics help people celebrate the milestone of their name change instead of feeling stressed by the process.
Robins Kaplan and OutFront Minnesota currently have four more clinics scheduled for the next year.
Legal names and mental health
Arjee Restar, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health, said in an email that it’s common for trans people to develop what she calls “ID anxiety.” That’s the feeling they get when their name doesn’t match the one on their IDs when trying to apply for car loans or enter a concert venue.
Restar published a paper in 2020 looking at how a legal name change can affect trans people’s mental health.
“In our study, we found that among trans people who wished to change their gender and name and did receive the legal affirmation they needed had lower reports across many negative mental health outcomes, specifically: depression, anxiety, somatization, global psychiatric distress and upsetting responses to gender-based mistreatment,” Restar said.
Roman, who asked not to use his last name due to recent violence and threats against LGBTQ people, says he’s largely learned over the last seven years to brush off the awkwardness that comes with the mismatch in names. But he said the sense of something being off builds up over time.
”I think it will make things a lot easier,” he said of the name change. “I won’t have to deal with those uncomfortable moments or confusing moments for me or other people nearly as often.”
Roman said most people he knows chose a whole new middle name when they legally changed their name. But he wants to keep his middle name as a testament to his mom and family, who have supported him since his transition.
“Marie is also my mom’s middle name, so I thought I would legally keep it just as a nod to my mom,” Roman said. “I thought that would be sweet.”