Unique Partnership Offers Support for Legal Name Changes

BY AJ Trager

BLOOMFIELD HILLS - The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to ending discrimination against transgender people, is set to officially launch its Name Change Project in Michigan. The project will provide legal assistance for trans people who are seeking to change their legal name.

"It is often intimidating and difficult for transgender people to navigate the legal system for a name change," said TLDEF Executive Director Michael Silverman. "With pro bono support from attorneys at Dykema Gossett PLLC and other potential Michigan law firms who wish to participate, TLDEF will help transgender Michigan residents through the name change process."

TLDEF has partnered with Dykema Gossett PLLC, a major Michigan based law firm that serves multiple cities across the state, and also partnered with the Michigan Bar Association and other law firms to provide a one day training for other Michigan attorneys who would like to volunteer on the project. The Name Changes Project will be offered strictly pro bono to individuals across the state.

The 90-minute training will include a comprehensive step-by-step guide to legal name changes in the state and a segment devoted to cultural competency training, which will shed light on issues affecting the LGBT community, like the proper terminology when addressing trans men and women and their specialized issues.

For Michigan youth between the ages of 14-21, changing a legal name is relatively simple but not cheap. According to Mi.gov, they must submit a petition with the local family division of the circuit court in the county where they have lived for at least a year and must be signed by all available guardians. A notice of the hearing of the name change will be posted, allowing for creditors and individuals with the same name the opportunity to object; the judge will then ask why the individual wants to change their name and then issue his or her decision to allow for the name change.

Additionally, those who are 21 years of age or older must be fingerprinted by the local police department and have a criminal history check by the Michigan State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The entire process can cost up to $350.

TLDEF and Dykema ran a pilot Name Change Project earlier this year beginning in February which lasted for roughly six months. Over that period of time, without doing any outreach, 25 individuals sought help from Dykema and TLDEF, eight of who had their names legally changed. The project had the ability to help more clients obtain a legal name change, however, only a small group of lawyers had signed on to help and they were unable to serve all of the interested parties. Many possible clients have been placed on a waiting list.

There are many challenges that trans people face when they are seeking a name change, ranging from mild irritation and inconvenience to an almost debilitating experience.

"Exploring a legal name change felt very daunting. For one thing, I certainly knew I couldn't afford the out-of-pocket expenses that were required," said 52-year-old TLDEF Name Change Client Kara Marie Ramsey. "TLDEF, along with Dykema, compassionately and respectfully eased that burden, walking beside me every step of the way and navigating the legal logistics for which I had no comprehension. Prior to completing my legal name change, I had to present a driver's license with my birth name. It was quite humiliating and embarrassing having to explain to various officials why both the picture and name weren't reflective of the woman standing before them. Now, with my legal name change, I have peace of mind having updated my birth certificate, driver's license, credit cards, voter registration, health insurance cards and many more vital documents. The Name Change Project truly saved my life."

Out of the 25 clients that the prototype program served, 63 percent earn less than $10,000 a year, with only 26 percent earning between $10-20,000 a year, figures that are not uncommon for trans individuals who face significant difficulties in areas of employment due to discrimination.

"Even accounting for the fact that it is a pro bono, the numbers we're seeing are stark," Silverman told BTL. "Two-thirds receive medicaid, 57 percent of our clients are African-American and Latino and only 14 percent of the clients have obtained an associates degree or higher."

Heidi A. Naasko, Dykema's pro bono and diversity counsel, says that the company is committed to building trust and respect between client and legal counsel and has received a 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Corporate Equality Index two years in a row.

"We have a lot of people who need to be heard," Naasko said. "When we first launched the project, we were thrilled that there were so many people who wanted to do this. We've had such a positive response from the community from people who want to volunteer. It's really exciting and important for a firm that claims to be diverse and inclusive."

Since the program began as a pilot project in 2007, TLDEF's Name Change Project has helped more than 2,000 people in nearly a dozen cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and more.

The training will be available at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at the Dykema office located at 39577 Woodward Ave., Suite 300 in Bloomfield Hills. All Michigan lawyers are encouraged to attend the free event. Recordings of the training will be available on Dykema's website following Sept. 24.

To RSVP for the event, go to http://www.cvent.com/d/OboSpTX4BU6QxyOT4Wn9ug/j778/P1/4W.


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