What’s in a name change? Too many hurdles, transgender advocates say

Transgender individuals in Arizona who want to change their name or gender on documents like driver’s licenses and birth certificates have to jump through a number of hoops – too many advocates say. But it is easier in Arizona than in some other states. In this 2019 file photo, transgender advocates rally at the Supreme Court. (File photo by Amy-Xiaoshi DePaola/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Daniel Trujillo, 15, said he was “super excited” two years ago when he finally received a birth certificate that accurately represents his gender identity.

“I told them that we needed to get a second copy and then frame it,” said Daniel, a Tucson resident.

But it took a court order for Daniel to get his gender changed on his birth certificate without first providing proof of a sex-change operation as required by state law, a policy that activists have challenged as unconstitutional.

LGBTQ+ activists say changing a birth certificate is just the most glaring example of the long and “arduous” journey that transgender people must undergo in Arizona to receive legal gender affirmation on official documents.

“(It’s) dictating someone’s health care,” said Tami Staas, executive director for the Arizona Trans Youth & Parent Organization. “It’s a very gatekeeping-type process.”

Activists say that Arizona is about in the middle of states in terms of the hoops transgender people have to jump through to amend their driver’s license, birth certificate or other state-issued documentation. But that doesn’t mean it’s accessible, they say.

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“It involves dealing with multiple agencies at different levels of government, from county to state to federal government, and incurring some different expenses with filing fees,” said Jeanne Woodbury, interim executive director of Equality Arizona. “It’s definitely not very accessible.”

Changing the gender on a birth certificate faces the highest hurdle in the state – proof that the person has had surgery to change their gender. That requirement sparked a lawsuit in November 2020 against the Arizona Department of Health Services, a suit in which Daniel and his mom, Lizette Trujillo, were among the original plaintiffs.

Rachel Berg, a staff attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, represents the four transgender children and their parents remaining in the lawsuit. But they are seeking to turn it into a class-action suit for “all transgender people born in Arizona who seek to change the sex on their birth certificates but have not undergone surgery.”

Berg said she hopes the case will conclude by the end of this year.

Though the Trujillos are no longer involved in the case, Lizette said she hopes the suit is successful and all transgender people in the state can get accurate documentation for themselves without the current restrictive requirements – or legal action.

But Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, said that Arizona youth especially need to be protected from gender-transitioning because “these are not decisions that should be made by children, or frankly, by their parents.” She said that “so-called” transgender individuals who are seeking to get a name or gender change on public documents should get counseling instead.

Arizona does offer the option of male, female or X on driver’s licenses, but the latter requires specific documentation. (File photo by Johnny Soto/Cronkite News)

“Science clearly shows that you cannot choose … you cannot change your DNA,” Herrod said.

LGBTQ+ organizations recommend the first step in getting that documentation is to go to your local superior court and start the process for a legal name change. Even that is not without its challenges.

Jericho Galindo, gender-affirming program manager for the Southwest Center, said the Maricopa County application for a court order “has some confusing language if you’re not familiar with the court systems.”

In addition to the paperwork, there’s the cost: Filing a name change order form in Maricopa County costs $333, with an additional $30 fee to certify each copy of the name change order. The Southwest Center in Phoenix and the Arizona Trans Youth & Parent Organization in Mesa offer financial and legal assistance to those needing throughout the gender-affirming process.

Galindo also said filing a name-change application and going to the courthouse can be triggering or anxiety-inducing for some, especially if they are “being deadnamed or misgendered constantly in the process.” Once the document and fee are filed, a court hearing is scheduled where the individual can get a certified name change order.

With that order, along with proof of identification, individuals can apply to the Social Security Administration for a name change. The application for a name change is also used to request a change in gender in the agency’s records.

While there is no gender marker on a Social Security card, Galindo said that information is kept in SSA records. It can be changed from male to female or female to male: The SSA does not currently offer a nonbinary option.

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Individuals have 10 days to report their new SSA name to the Arizona Department of Transportation Motor Vehicles Division. With it, and the court order granting a name change, the MVD will change the name on an Arizona driver’s license.

Gender markers can be changed between male and female on an Arizona driver’s license with an amended birth certificate or letter from a physician saying the individual is “irrevocably committed to the gender change process.” The state does offer a nonbinary gender marker of X, but only with government documentation, indicating a gender different than male or female.

Arizona birth certificates do not have a nonbinary option.

The National Center for Transgender Equality gives Arizona a grade of C+ for its policy on driver’s license gender changes, because the state does not require proof of surgery or a court order. But the process still presents some challenges.

Woodbury noted that Arizona does not require that an individual publish a public notice of their name change in a newspaper, a requirement in Georgia, Nebraska and some other states.

Staas said that even though Arizona is not the most restrictive – some states do not allow for birth certificate changes at all – the state still has work to do. That includes removing the surgical requirement for birth certificates, lowering the cost of fees and allowing people to self-select their gender.

“The Arizona state laws are archaic, and they need to go,” Staas said.

Jasmine Kabiri jaz-min kah-bee-ree (she/hers)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Jasmine Kabiri expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, a minor in political science and a certificate in international studies. She is a managing editor at ASU’s student-led newspaper, The State Press, and has interned for The Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado.