There are many barriers that transgender people face when their legal documents do not reflect their gender identity. Oliver Savoie, a 25-year-old transgender man from Beaumont, knows this firsthand.
Before he corrected his name and gender marker, Savoie often avoided places where he could get carded. He has even been denied service because his driver’s license gender marker did not reflect his gender identity.
“I had to file a police report at work a few months into my transition, and the police gave me a hard time because they needed my ID, and it didn’t look like me,” he recalls.
The National Center for Transgender Equality’s National Transgender Discrimination Survey confirms Savoie’s experiences, noting that without accurate and consistent legal documents, trans people are at risk for “negative outcomes, from denial of employment, housing, and public benefits to harassment, and physical violence.”
Savoie’s encounter with the police, and the risk of continued harassment, pushed him to search for resources that would help him correct his legal documents.
In November 2019, he learned about Trans-Legal Aid Clinic Houston, a local nonprofit run by LGBTQ-affirming volunteer attorneys and paralegals who help streamline the name and gender marker correction process for trans folk by drafting their legal petitions.
After participating in two info sessions hosted by Trans-Legal Aid Clinic Houston at the Montrose Center and filing his petition in Travis County District Court, Savoie was able to update his legal documents by February.
“I’m extremely grateful for the Trans-Legal Aid Clinic Houston, and thankful that the process was so exceptionally easy,” Savoie says. “The organization was really helpful, and they’ve made a difference in my life.”
People can attend Trans-Legal Aid Clinic Houston’s next Zoom video conferences on July 16 and July 18.
Before the pandemic, the organization helped clients in person at the Montrose Center. Although the clinic has moved online for the time being, its services remain the same.
Clients leave the clinic’s info sessions with the paperwork (excluding personal documents) they need to file a petition and order to correct their name and/or gender marker. After acquiring the necessary personal documents, clients can correct their name and/or gender marker by filing online or in person through the Travis County District Court in Austin.
Trans-Legal Aid Clinic Houston’s services are also free. Through grants, the organization helps pay or obtain waivers for transportation costs, administrative fees, and filing fees clients may face while acquiring their personal documents. If clinic volunteers cannot help, the organization will recommend additional resources where clients can get assistance.
Trans-Legal Aid Clinic Houston’s president, Pete Makopoulos-Senftleber, a bisexual trans volunteer attorney, says the nonprofit is useful especially for people who are unfamiliar with the process.
Makopoulos-Senftleber admits he was intimidated when he decided to correct his name and gender marker. Even as a second-year law student, he wasn’t sure what he needed to file and whether he had to go in front of a judge.
“I had all these questions, and that’s me as a privileged person who was in an educated position and could afford resources to get myself through the process if I needed to,” he says.
However, legal jargon is not the only hurdle trans people face during the correction process. According to Makopoulos-Senftleber and several clinic volunteers and clients, it is difficult to complete a gender correction in Harris County District Court.
Travis County District Court has officially appointed staff who oversee the correction process. Petitions in Harris County District Court, on the other hand, are randomly assigned to one of the 11 family court judges. Being assigned to a judge who may be unfamiliar with the process makes it harder for applicants to get their marker corrected, Makopoulos-Senftleber says.
He adds that, while Travis county has never required any of Trans-Legal Aid Clinic Houston’s clients to attend a hearing, Harris County District Court requires court hearings before a judge for all name and/or gender marker corrections.
“The degree of certainty is higher in Travis than in Harris County, especially with gender marker corrections,” he adds. “Harris County District Court is reluctant to change and implement the same process Travis County has.”
The obstacles that folks face when looking to correct their name and/or gender marker are not exclusive to Harris County. Trans Equality gave Texas an F rating for not having a trans-friendly driver’s license gender-change policy. A-rated states like California offer gender-neutral options and do not require provider certification. Texas requires proof of surgery, and either a court order or an amended birth certificate to approve a driver’s license gender marker correction, Trans Equality found.
Texas also has “no specific policy or practice” regarding gender marker corrections, so the judge or policy official ultimately determines whether a person’s gender-marker is corrected, according to Trans Equality.
However, Makopoulos-Senftleber believes that change is possible. Advocates can start by informing Harris County’s family courts of the public’s demand for a more efficient correction process, and the undue burden they are placing on Travis County District Courts.
“We must coordinate our efforts to highlight the fact that trans and nonbinary citizens and other counties deserve a reliable process. The statute governing these corrections mandates it, quite frankly,” Makopoulos-Senftleber notes.
Thanks to Trans-Legal Aid Clinic Houston, Savoie is living his best life. He is a full-time student at Houston Community College and plans to transfer to the University of Houston next spring to study dentistry.
“Since I’ve corrected my markers, the little moments people take for granted have changed for me,” he says. “When I show my ID, they see my real name, and it’s just more comfortable now. I didn’t think I would get the chance to change my name and gender marker nearly this fast, so don’t give up hope,” Savoie says.
After its July clinics, Trans-Legal Aid Clinic Houston will host clinics via Zoom on September 17, September 19, November 19, and November 21. More information can be found at facebook.com/TransLegalAidClinicHouston.