Whats in a name afterall? Actually a whole lot. For some trans folks it can even mean the difference between life and death.
Names provide all sorts of cues about a person that may or may not accurately reflect their personal identities. What a person is called can express and encompass much about a person. Names can express cultural identity, familial or marital relationships, tribal identity, racial identity, ancestry, religious identity, ethnicity and much more. Names are very often gendered-and then usually within the confines of the gender binary. There is much power and much history in each person’s name- no matter whether it was given or was chosen. For trans folks, being able to live with their chosen name can literally mean the difference between facing discriminatory harassment or not in their everyday interactions.
In the most recent U.S. Trans Survey, (on page 9) over half of the respondents reported that they had not been able to update their ID documents to reflect the name that they preferred to use. Living without an updated ID that properly reflects your lived gender identity often leads to dangerous results for trans folks. The U.S. Trans Survey (page 9) also reported that 32% of trans folks interviewed experienced discrimination, harassment, refusal of services or assault due to their ID mismatch. Experiences of ID based discrimination and harassment contribute to the stress and trauma which leads to the incredibly high rates of suicide among transgender communities. (US Trans Survey page 10).
But what happens when trans* folks get to use the name they prefer? Not surprisingly, when trans* folks can live using the name they prefer- the risk of suicide and depression drop considerably. A recent study from the University of Texas found that when trans* youth are able to use their chosen names in 4 areas of life (school, home, work, with friends)- then their risk of depression and suicide drops immensely. Getting to use their chosen name directly impacted suicide risks and reduced the rate of suicide attempts by 65%. This means that suicide rates of trans folks could be cut in half just by making legal name changes accessible and enforceable.
For trans* folks in rural areas, there may be additional hurdles to the name change process that their urban counterparts don’t have to navigate. Here in Washington state, name change petitions must be heard in local district court. The district court is a small municipal division of each local county. This means that a trans* person may have to out themselves as trans* in a small local court just to get a name change. They may be deterred because they are likely to know folks who work at the Court. They may be afraid to file because even though Washington doesn’t require publication for name changes- the court record will remain public in the person’s county and could be searched or seen by neighbors. Trans* folks in rural areas are more isolated from supportive services and legal support so they are less likely to find legal help for name changes and are not as able to connect to other helpful resources which may be centered in urban Seattle. They may not know to reach out to Ingersoll Gender Center to request financial assistance for name change petition filing fees or can’t drive the distance required to attend the regular ID document clinics that happen in the Seattle area. Even if they are able to file, then they face potential discretion from local rural Judges who may not be versed in trans* related legal issues. This most often comes up when rural trans* folks want to try to seal their name changes (to seal means to remove from the public record). Most rural district courts do not have a process or option for sealing a name change. The Trans Advocacy in Rural Places (TARP) program will be posting a blog post about what is required to seal name or gender changes so check back here on the blog page for that future post. And if you are ready to file for a name change in your county, be sure to visit the TARP legal forms document bank to get free fill-able copies of name change petitions for your name change which include in depth instructions for the court process.
Lately some information came to our attention over here at TARP and since then we have been asking ourselves -Whats in a name? For the first 6 months of this program, it was named the Trans Rural Advocacy Project or “TRAP.” The use of the acronym TRAP was mostly just due to it being the acronym of the name but was also meant to imply that the program serves as a means to catch those trans* folks who otherwise fall through the gaps in legal services. Unbeknownst to the Equal Justice Works Fellow who developed the program, the acronym “TRAP” is offensive to trans* folks as it has a history being used as a slur against trans* people. Recently, some very helpful community members let us know the history of the term and helped us to brainstorm how to deal with the unintended consequences of using that acronym. Because we totally understand the power behind names, and because we have no desire to offend our trans* peers and perpetuate offensive transphobic language against our own community, we have changed the program name! You may have noticed the rebranding of all our social media and logos to now use the name '“Trans Advocacy in Rural Places” or “TARP”. Please forgive any forms, flyers or posts that still say “TRAP”- we continue to change what we can and some posts can’t be changed at all. We hope folks understand the mistake and continue to help us learn and grow! Cause a name can say so much- we hope the new TARP acronym expresses that the program is here to help be a place of relief and support for trans* folks (getting under the TARP) and a means of “covering the gaps” in legal services that so many rural trans* folks continue to face.