What’s in a name? It’s a reflection of one’s identity. Yet for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, changing their legal name to align with their identity is often a difficult and intimidating process.
A new initiative by UB School of Law’s Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic, led by Associate Professor Heather Abraham (she/her), is advising transgender clients through the name change process.
The new initiative is a partnership with BestSelf Behavioral Health, which refers clients and hosts clinics, and Neighborhood Legal Services, which co-counsels and e-files the petitions in state Supreme Court.
The students meet with clients on Saturdays at a downtown BestSelf site, conduct an initial intake interview, provide advice and counsel, and complete the required petitions. They also help clients who want to invoke New York State’s new provision on official documents, such as driver’s licenses, to choose the gender marker “X” rather than opting for “Male” or “Female.”
“It’s something that a lot of us take for granted, the way that our names determine how we identify outwardly to the world,” says Sean Brosius (he/him), a licensed social worker and a 2021 graduate of UB's School of Social Work. Brosius directs BestSelf’s Gender Affirming Care program and is the organization’s liaison to the initiative. “Our name is the biggest part of validating our identity. If we can help folks experience that validation with a name that better reflects who they are, we can relieve some of the stress they are experiencing. It’s just a basic human need, and everyone deserves the opportunity to live their lives in the most honest expression of who they are.”
That has been the case for one of the student attorneys, second-year student Daniel Kahl ’24 (they/he), a non-binary trans man who legally changed their name last year, assisted by law students running a similar clinic at Cornell. “Having the chance to pay it forward has been an excellent opportunity,” Kahl says. “It’s really meaningful to me to provide this legal help; I know first-hand how important it is.”
They note that because the clients often have low incomes, they’re routinely able to have the $210 filing fee for a name change petition waived by the court.
Student attorney Zadaa Ziran Guo ’24 (they/them) also has a personal stake in the help they’re providing. “I am a non-binary trans woman, and this is personal for me,” they say. “This is very important right now in a climate of increasing transphobia and rollback of trans rights across the country. It’s good to help other trans people with this.”
Guo says the required forms are available online. “You could fill them out yourself,” they say, “but it’s not easy for everyone. People could struggle to understand the legalese, or they may have questions about what documentation they need.”
They also point out that New York State has recently changed the law so that name changes no longer have to be published or otherwise publicized. “They allow you to seal the court order and petition so that no one can search for it,” Guo says. “A lot of trans people have real concerns about safety. They might not want people to know that they are trans, and they might not want people to find that information and harass them about it.”
Their classmate Deja Graham ’24 (she/her) notes that the name change petition can be the beginning of a long process to amend many forms of official identification. A person’s driver’s license, Social Security card, birth certificate, and health-related documents can be altered to reflect a new name and gender.
“This is something our clients really, really want but can’t do on their own,” Graham says. “We’re helping them be affirmed in their gender and getting them one step closer to true happiness. And they are so appreciative.”
That’s an emotion Michael Reiser ’16 (he/him) sees as well, as Neighborhood Legal Services’ point person for the program and director of its medical-legal partnership with Evergreen Health, another referring agency.
“There’s something incredibly personal about your name,” Reiser says, “and it’s pretty inspiring when you get to call people and say that you are you in the eyes of the government. It means a lot to people.
“It’s a good example of the law doing good, and it’s a really good experience for the students. Our team of law students are great—they’re really good at what they do, they’re culturally competent, and they’re very smart.”