Justice Identified: Never too late to be yourself

Our client is a transgender woman living with HIV. She transitioned her gender more than 40 years ago and had never applied for government-issued identification. Instead, she relied upon informal documents to establish her identity, which included a name she didn’t use.

As a trans woman who is also a long-time survivor, she wanted to share her story to support others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 22-28% of transgender women are living with HIV and an estimated 56% of black transgender women are living with HIV. She wanted to give hope to other trans woman living with HIV nationally and internationally.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) enforces the Department of Homeland Security’s Real ID program, which states that, “starting January 22, 2018, you will need a driver’s license or ID from a state compliant with the Real ID Act, a state that has an extension for compliance or an alternate ID to fly.”

Without ID that matched her true identity, she would always be limited in her reach. She came to us for help.

The first step was to legally change her name to one she had been using for her entire adult life.

As we unraveled her story to prepare the name change petition, we found that she had a criminal record for sex work.

She also had an outstanding bench warrant, but had fortunately had never been convicted of a felony. The PA name change statute bars people with certain felonies, as well people on probation and parole and those with active warrants, from changing their name.

We supported her in getting the bench warrant resolved and petitioned the court for a legal name change.

The PA name change statute requires publication of notice in 2 newspapers. We requested a waiver of this requirement, based on our client’s fear that publishing would “out” her as a transgender woman and put her at risk. At the in-camera hearing on the waiver, our client testified about friends she had lost to violence as a result of hatred towards transgender women. The publication requirement was waived, and the record sealed.

The judge signed the decree changing our client’s name, and then we went with our client to the DMV.

Finally, looking at her new ID that matched her true self, our client said she felt like she just won the lottery. Shortly after, she took a vacation by plane for the first time in her life.