Ellen Bertels: Name Change Project simplifies a complex, emotional process for transgender Kansans (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Ellen Bertels is an attorney for Kansas Legal Services Inc.

Let me tell you a quick story about Kansas.

For years, an unwritten rule made it impossible for transgender people born in Kansas to correct the gender marker on their birth certificate — and thus, on their other IDs as well. Trans Kansans, including the extraordinary Stephanie Mott, advocated for years to change this rule. It was finally overturned in June 2019 as a result of a lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal. The result? Trans Kansans had access to accurate IDs for the first time in almost a decade.

The facts are clear: Accurate IDs are crucial to trans people’s safety and wellbeing. Having accurate identity documents makes it possible to navigate essential facets of life, such as education, health care and travel. Studies show that folks who lack accurate identity documents are more likely to be turned away from public spaces, verbally harassed, and physically assaulted. This change in the law provided a pathway for trans Kansans to obtain accurate IDs, protect their wellbeing, and be recognized for who they truly are in the process.

My advocacy began the day that I heard about this consent decree. My law school classmate D.C. Hiegert and I came back from our summer internships in 2019 with the same spark of an idea: What if we started a clinic that helped low-income trans Kansans access affordable legal help with gender marker and name changes?

D.C. and I spent two years making this idea a reality. We wrote and published the first guide for gender marker changes on Kansas birth certificates. We collaborated with advocates and attorneys to ensure that the attorneys and interns were aware of, and competent to handle, the specific concerns that trans clients have. We travelled across the state to connect with LGBTQ advocates in southwestern Kansas to see how our advocacy could better serve rural Kansans.

I’m now in my third year of name change advocacy. Now I run the Kansas Name Change Project at Kansas Legal Services Inc.

I provide free legal representation to transgender, nonbinary, and gender-diverse Kansans seeking name changes and other civil legal services. I directly represent trans folks across the state of Kansas in name changes, and I provide public education and guidance through the various ID correction processes. In the long term, I hope to create a network of attorneys who can provide competent, affirming, and affordable services for low-income trans Kansans seeking all sorts of legal support.

This is joyful work. As a cisgender woman, I can’t speak to the feeling of finalizing accurate, affirming IDs. But I can tell you that every time I watch a judge sign a name change order, it is cause for celebration. 

It’s also joyful to work in community with other LGBTQ advocates. I have the privilege to know and work with people who care for their community, care for their families, and fight for the dignity and freedom of Kansas’ LGBTQ community. Advocates for LGBTQ equality in Kansas work to put food on the table; they work to build communities that unconditionally support Kansans of all identities. I am lucky to work alongside them.

Still, frustration lingers. Trans folks face many barriers when trying to correct their IDs. Even with free legal representation, they have to pay filing fees, publication fees, and fees to correct each of the IDs they want to change. They may have to change IDs in different states, under different state laws. They have to separately contact each bank, school, lender and health care provider to update their records after a name change. These complicated administrative processes open trans people up to scrutiny and criticism at every turn.

These barriers are a trans rights issue, but they are also an access to justice issue. Together with community partners, following the lead of trans and nonbinary advocates in the community, the Kansas Name Change Project works toward a Kansas where the law liberates, rather than confines.

Where money does not bar a person from living their life authentically.

Where access to justice includes people of all genders, expressions, races, and abilities.

It may not come easy and it may not come soon, but we’ll try anyway.

I’d love for you to join us in creating that future.

— Ellen Bertels (she/her) is an attorney for Kansas Legal Services Inc. Through a Skadden Fellowship, she established the Kansas Name Change Project, where she provides free civil legal support and community education for LGBTQ Kansans. Ellen is a lifelong Kansan, and earned both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Kansas.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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