Jackson Bird

Ryan Lash/TED Talks

Transgender people, gender non-conforming individuals and others claiming a new identity don’t need a piece of paper to tell them who they are. Although it involves substantial paperwork, money and patience, legally changing identity documents offers important advantages.

Jackson Bird, Internet creator, writer and activist, describes amending identity documents as such: “Think when you update your credit card, but on steroids.” Bird documents his transition in his memoir due September 2019, Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir).

“I started with a court-ordered name change, which, along with a note from my doctor confirming my status as trans, allowed me to change my name and gender on my driver’s license, social security card, and passport,” says Bird over email. “From there, I had to change my name with my bank, jobs, health insurance, student loans, and every account I’d ever signed up for.”

Jackson BirdJackson Bird
Jackson Bird

Changing your identity varies from state to state except for federal documents like Social Security cards, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) documents, and passports. See Lambda Legal’s state-by-state requirements for changing birth certificates for an example of the differences between states.

Getting a court order for a name change is an important first step. Depending on your state, you might not have to actually go to court. Some states allow for a common-law-name-change but Lambda Legal writes on its website that “banks and other institutions generally decline to recognize a common-law change.”

Getting a physician’s note confirming your trans status is necessary for some state-issued documents. Deja Cabrera, transgender services coordinator at the San Diego LGBT Community Center, says physician letters are no longer required in California as of September 1, 2018. However, some states require not only a physician’s letter but two irreversible surgeries to change gender markers.

“That can mean a plethora of things,” says Cabrera. “For a trans woman, it could mean getting her testicles removed — an orchiectomy. It could also include getting a vaginoplasty…Those surgeries are expensive. Those surgeries also require letters from doctors — it’s just another hurdle that trans people need to go through in order to feel affirmed in the society we live in.”

Deja Cabrera
Deja Cabrera
Deja Cabrera

Changing your US passport will require filling out one of the various passport application documents. Those can be downloaded from the US Department of State website. What form you use is dependent on whether or not your passport is expired or if it’s your first passport, among other qualifiers.

Cabrera says changing passports are more difficult for those identifying as non-binary. You may be able to get an “X” gender marker on state-issued documents like your driver’s license and birth certificate, but not on passports.

To change your name with the Social Security Administration (SSA), the Transgender Law Center’s Quick Guide says that you’ll need the following: a completed application for a Social Security card, payment, proof of US citizenship, proof of legal name change, and proof of identity.

Changing your gender marker with the SSA also requires a completed application and one of the following: a medical certificate of “appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition,” a passport with your new gender marker, a birth certificate with your new gender marker or a court order recognizing your new gender.

You should be able to change your name on any document issued by USCIS with a court order for a name change, says the Transgender Law Center. To get your gender recognized, you’ll need to submit an updated birth certificate, passport, court order, or medical certification signed by a doctor.

Cabrera says the most difficult part for her clients is waiting post-document submission. In addition, transgender people face high unemployment rates, often finding fees associated with transition challenging. Changing your name, gender marker and birth certificate can cost $435, says Cabrera.

For those that are about to dive into all this paperwork, Cabrera recommends careful consideration of the new name you choose. Some choose just a new first, some select new names similar to their old names and some pick entirely different names.

Bird writes about choosing a new name in Sorted.

“I talk about the process of choosing my first name, including talking to my mom about what she would have named me if I had been assigned male at birth,” says Bird. “I also include a sidebar with tips for people picking a new name.”

Instead of just consulting this Living101 article, those seeking to change identity documents are better off reaching out to a lawyer. Some LGBTQ+ organizations, like The San Diego LGBT Community Center, have legal clinics that assist with the process. There’s also lots of information online to get you started, like the Transgender Law Center’s quick online guide.

It’s a big undertaking that’s very important. Bird says that having identification that reflects one’s affirmed name and gender eases dysphoria and increases trans individuals’ safety.

“If your transition has led to visible changes that don’t match with the photo or words on your identification, you could be refused service at bars, hotels, security checkpoints, and anywhere else you have to present identification,” says Bird. “It can also needlessly out you to people who may want to make trouble.”