It’s a Girl! Naming and Identity in the Transgender Narrative

Most members of the LGBTQ community have a “coming out” story, some funny, some heartbreaking, some still being written. My own transpired when my mother found a book I was reading – “Lesbian Made Easy” (which, unfortunately, turned out to be a very tongue in cheek title). In many cases, it’s the telling of these stories that commemorates the transition from the “in” to the “out”. But for members of the transgender community, the transition is more than a preposition – it’s a new pronoun, a new name, and sometimes a new body, all of which come with unique challenges.

Soon after I came out in college, I started volunteering for the local LGBTQ film festival, and it was there that I met Paula. She was sweet, outgoing and dedicated to the cause. Born “Paul,” Paula was the first transgender woman I’d ever met, and she exemplified the word brave. During the course of our friendship, Paula sold the house she’d owned for over twenty years so as to afford the reassignment surgery that her insurance would not cover. When she returned from her surgery in Thailand, we greeted her at the airport holding “It’s a girl!” signs and balloons. Paula had taken a monumental step towards living her truth, and yet this was not to be the end of her hardship. Anyone who looked at Paula would know she was born “Paul.” For all of her efforts, Paula would likely never “pass.”

For a majority of transgender women, the goal is to “pass” as a binary female gender. It is that first impression, that first encounter with strangers, when they lump you into one category or the other, which will determine whether a transgender male-to-female (or “MtF”) has “passed.” The ability to “pass” is a coveted asset, one that many transgender women believe will open the door to social acceptance.

But beyond putting undue pressure on an already stigmatized group of women, there’s another major flaw in this thinking: it is all based on the oppressive sex stereotype of what a woman is supposed to look like and how she is supposed to act. Unfortunately, even the most ardent feminist must acknowledge that for transgender women the ability to pass and safety are intrinsically interlinked. Even as the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that the number of overall incidents of hate-motivated violence against LGBTQ community dropped 32% from 2013 to 2014, hate-motivated violence against transgender people increased 13% for the same year. Add to that the fact that these communities historically underreport such crimes, and you get a feel for the legitimacy of this concern. Society enforces gender norms, quite literally.

And while in many ways 2016 has brought a sea change to the LGBTQ community overall, there is still a long way to go. Although overwhelming significant number of Americans now have openly gay family members or gay coworkers, most Americans do not personally know a transgender person – or know that they know one. As actress and activist Laverne Cox has noted, “When people have points of reference that are humanizing, that demystifies difference.” Yet for many transgender people, being openly different is only more dangerous. The need to “pass” is not just to live as themselves, but also to avoid the discrimination, stigma and violence directed towards members of the transgender community.

How do we move toward a society in which everyone can feel safe and proud expressing their gender identity? I’ve learned that the law is one way. Legal services organizations, both alone and in partnership with law firms, have been at the forefront of bringing about social change through the law, including through the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund’s Name Change Project, which assists transgender individuals with legal name changes; by representing transgender individuals denied medical coverage for procedures deemed “transition-related” and therefore not medically necessary; and by tracking and challenging discriminatory practices or legislation in various states. For instance, when the West Virginia DMV had denied transgender women drivers’ licenses unless they changed their appearance in their drivers’ license photos to conform to the gender designations on their licenses, a team from Debevoise was able to negotiate a change to a new policy that now prohibits DMV staff from asking license applicants to “remove or modify makeup, clothing [or] hairstyle” for their photos unless such items prevent a clear full-face photograph. The new policy permits transgender West Virginians to update their drivers’ licenses to reflect their true selves, free from discrimination.

In another pro bono matter, we are representing Jane Doe, an 11-year-old transgender girl whose school has turned a blind eye to the bullying and humiliation to which she has been frequently subjected by not just other students but teachers and staff. Jane’s school had enacted a policy which would force Jane to use only a specially designed restroom that no other student has to use. Such discriminatory bathroom policies can cause both mental and physical trauma to transgender individuals, especially at such a young and impressionable age.

These legal battles can and will change the lives of many transgender people, and I am proud to have chosen a profession that stands up for the rights of those most in need of protection. But I’ve also learned that you don’t need to be an attorney to make a difference. The most basic grammatical act – referring to a transgender woman by her chosen name instead of her birth name, or her chosen pronoun instead of her birth pronoun – speaks volumes towards supporting the rights of that individual. As one activist has noted, “[t]he act of choosing a name is an empowering one. It is redefining a core aspect of one’s self, what one is called and how one is identified to the world, in accordance with one’s own identity. For transgender people . . . picking a new name allows one to choose an identifier that fits with one’s desired gender and presentation.”

When asked how any one person can help make a positive change in the lives of transgender people, the most common answers are: listen and share acceptance. Listening is probably the most important thing you can do for any person who is sharing their story with you. All people — regardless of who they are or what their situation is — are searching for acceptance. Simply being present and giving them your undivided attention is in and of itself an act of equality. You don’t need a law degree for that. Transgender women aren’t looking for you to judge or even to validate them, just to accept and appreciate them for the person they are. And regardless of gender identity, all people can learn from this, both as speakers and listeners. By listening and sharing acceptance, we are able to play a role in building each other up, instead of tearing each other down.