Michaela Marie Wills and Aria Vandebergh waited in the Cloud Room for their names to be called. Several dozen other people sat in the dimly lit room — warm with the press of bodies or an overzealous heater, it was hard to tell — grabbing drinks at the bar and contributing to the heavy buzz of conversation.
The pair make up a local punk band and had come out with other members of Seattle’s transgender community for the first of three clinics held by the Gender Justice League to get help changing their names and gender markers on legal documents. The Gender Justice League expects the next two clinics to be held at the Agnes Underground on Dec. 18 and Jan. 5. Check the organization’s Facebook page for times.
They and other folks who had put off the process because of the cost or complexity felt the need to get it done and get it done fast.
There’s no guarantee, some clients felt, that the option would be open to them after Inauguration Day. Even if President-elect Donald Trump’s position on “the gays,” as he has called the LGBTQ community, turns out to be as malleable as most of his statements, the opinions of his vice president, Mike Pence, are well known and unfriendly to the transgender community.
“The evil empire is taking over,” Wills said.
Wills was the first of the two to be called, and Vandebergh waited on the couch. If they go on the road with their act — a blend of ’80s goth, Robert Smith and other influences — they’ll both need passports and licenses with their correct names. That’s harder for Vandebergh, originally of South Dakota, who also wants a birth certificate updated.
“I went to the library at one point,” Vandebergh said, “but I need a professional to tell me what I need.”
And the professionals came to help.
Volunteers from the Q-Law Legal Foundation, Teller & Associates, U.T.O.P.I.A. and the King County Bar Association arrived in force to walk people through legal processes, with desks split up by geography in the Agnes Basement work share office that the Gender Justice League calls home. Capitol Hill Medical, Queen Anne Medical Associates and Swedish Family Medicine on Capitol Hill provided a volunteer medical team.
The clinic served 85 clients and processed 47 applications for financial assistance in just three hours. The League raised money to help defray some of the costs for as many low-income people as they could — a name change alone costs $171 in King County.
That’s actually cheap compared to many other parts of the country, which not only charge different prices but also maintain different standards as to what counts as proof of a gender transition, said Dru Levasseur, director of the Transgender Rights Project for Lambda Legal, a nationwide group that fights for the rights of the LGBTQ community.
Members of the transgender community are disproportionately likely to be low-income, which puts many document changes out of reach. A name change can cost upward of $300 and $400, depending where you live. Birth certificates cost $20 per copy, but to change the gender marker requires a doctor’s appointment, which can be financially out of reach.
Different identity documents require different levels of proof. The most restrictive, according to Lambda Legal’s toolkit on ID changes, are birth certificates. Birth certificates fall under the category of “vital documents,” which the government and private entities rely upon for many functions, including the provision of services or social insurance programs.
In Washington, a name change requires a petition to the court. A driver’s license requires the applicant to submit by mail proof of their name change and a “change of gender designation request form” signed by a licensed physician.
Birth certificates are more difficult. A change to a birth certificate needs the name change and a physician to affirm that the person requesting the change has had “appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition.” This standard is less onerous than surgery, but still sets a high bar.
The gold standard is a process that doesn’t require third-party confirmation at all. The country that practices that? Argentina, homeland of Pope Francis where 77 percent of people identified as Catholic in 2011.
“There’s an impression that the U.S. is far along, but when it comes to transgender issues, we’re not the farthest along,” Levasseur said. “Having an accurate identity document is a human rights issue, because it’s a gateway to the government validating who you are.”
Levasseur sees concern in the community about the future and acknowledges that a Trump-Pence administration might create more roadblocks in the process of correcting legal documents. However, no one should rush into a change that they might not be ready for out of fear, Levasseur said.
“I want people to know they have a large community, a large army of smart lawyers and activists who will be there for them and whatever they’re facing,” Levasseur said.
In the meantime, it’s good to look to your elders.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, better known as Miss Major, is a 76-year-old trans woman and veteran of the Stonewall Revolution in New York, a seminal moment in the fight for LGBTQ rights. She acts as executive director emeritus at the TGI Justice Project, an organization in Oakland that works with the transgender community in and outside of incarceration to strengthen the community. A documentary about her life, “Major!”, won several awards and will be traveling next to Kampala, Uganda.
Miss Major sees the incoming administration as a danger, but a manageable one.
The community weathered the Bush and Reagan years, although that’s not what she sees in a Trump-Pence administration.
“We’re going back to Eisenhower in my mind,” Miss Major said.
She’s fought these fights before, she said, and she’ll be taking her experience on the road. In January, Miss Major plans to move to Little Rock, Arkansas, to give a boost to the transgender community there. She visited while filming the documentary, and saw little cohesion and socializing by “my ladies,” as she calls them. That will have to be fixed if the group means to take care of itself in the years ahead.
Miss Major certainly intends to.
“All I know is that we have to survive, because that’s the test,” she said. “The proof is in the pudding. We’ll get through this and be there and when the dust settles I stand up, and I’m still fucking here.”