Out of all 50 states, Florida has the third highest number of people who identify as transgender—an identity that increases one's risk of homelessness, poverty and unemployment and can bar people from access to medical and financial resources. One of the reasons for those struggles is that transgender people often lack legal documentation that matches their gender.
If transgender individuals' ID and birth certificate show their gender prior to transitioning, or their "dead name" (their name prior to transitioning), they are less likely to be helped by law enforcement, less likely to find work and less likely to find housing.
To rectify that, the nonprofit Legal Aid of Manasota recently launched a program intended to make it easier for transgender adults and youth to legally change their names and gender markers.
Through the program, pro bono lawyers walk clients through the entire legal process, including filing paperwork and attending courtroom hearings, until their client's name is officially changed. Three clients have already used the program so far.
"To make clients feel welcome and understood by their guides, lawyers have also been trained in areas such as gender identity versus sexual orientation, using proper pronouns, trauma-informed language and reducing distress," says Legal Aid executive director Linda Harradine. "We received this training from the Gainesville organization Southern Legal Counsel."
There are several barriers people transitioning encounter. Harradine says that many people take for granted how having accurate identification is important for finding housing and employment, collecting benefits, cashing a check, getting on an airplane and even renting a car.
Local LGBTQ organizations ALSO Youth and Sarasota Pride have partnered with Legal Aid to help the organization reach those in need of services. There's also a referral program through the Gender Affirming Clinic at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. Social workers from the clinic refer transgender youth and their families to Legal Aid to get the process started.
"This is a fairly new partnership for us, but we've already sent over a handful of patients and their families to Legal Aid," says All Children's Hospital social worker Allegra Kartha. "Having an official name change has been shown to reduce depression, anxiety and rates of suicide in transgender youth, and it allows them to step into a social transition where the chances of being misgendered or 'dead-named' are reduced."
Kartha works with patients up to age 21. They say name changes allow adolescents greater access to quality health care and education. The Gender Affirming Clinic typically provides patients referrals to behavioral and mental health outpatient services, legal counsel and support groups. Many patients are referred from the general hospital or a pediatrician's office.
The clinic also offers a parent resource center called POPS, in which parents of transgender and gender-diverse children can serve as mentors to others. Another program, called the Gender Coalition Collab Group, is a network of mental health providers who join to help transgender and gender-diverse people.
"We advocate for patients and their families and, by doing so, we hope to help lower mental illness, suicide and bullying rates within the gender-diverse community," says Kartha. "We try to support them on all ends."
The Legal Aid program assists clients on an income-based scale. People who qualify based on their income will receive free services.
"Some psychologists have described legal name changes as such a relief for transgender patients," says Harradine. "They are already overwhelmed with psychotherapy, hormone therapy and other social and cultural obstacles. The last thing they want is to be faced with all this paperwork and legal jargon alone. It's a sense of relief when someone helps them."
To begin the process of changing your name prior to meeting with a lawyer, visit floridanamechange.org. For more information about the Legal Aid of Manasota program, visit the organization's website or call (941) 366-0038. If you are interested in learning more about Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital's Gender Affirming Clinic, call the hospital's main line at (727) 898-7451.