Shortly after the presidential election the hashtag #TransLawHelp began to pop up on Twitter and other social media sites. The tag, originally coined by a user by the name of Riley, was a quick effort to match transgender Americans with lawyers to help them secure proper documentation and ID before the Trump administration took office. Because Trump himself hinted at a near-definite repeal of many of President Obama’s LGBT-inclusive executive orders, many trans and gender non-conforming people began working to obtain or change government documents to align with proper gender markers and name information while they still had the relative ease of doing so.
Users put out the call on social media and lawyers and web developers from across the country stepped up to donate their services, including Bondurant Mixson & Elmore attorney Amanda Seals Bersinger here in Georgia.
“I raised my hand to spearhead the effort in Georgia because I felt sure I could quickly rally enough folks eager to help to cover the need here,” Bersinger told Georgia Voice.
Over 40 Georgia lawyers signed up so far
Bersinger has been able to quickly rally other lawyers to the cause. Over 40 Georgia lawyers signed up to provide pro bono services to any trans or gender non-conforming Georgian in need, representing many of Atlanta’s big-name firms including Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, Akin & Tate, Alston & Bird, Greenberg Traurig, and others. About a dozen clients have secured services from the group so far. The group’s primary focus is helping trans individuals secure a passport and other legal documents that reflect their gender identity. To ensure competent care and assistance, Bersinger’s law firm hosted a training for lawyers and other legal professionals conducted by TransForm.
“Because a passport can serve as photo identification, proof of age, and also proof of citizenship, it’s an especially valuable piece of identification, even for folks who have no intention of traveling abroad,” Bersinger explains. “For example, they establish both identity and employment authorization, as required for an I-9 form, so they help people avoid ‘outing’ themselves in employment, but also in other sensitive situations where it might not be safe for trans folks to be out, they might expose themselves to discrimination if they’re out, or they might otherwise not want to be out, for whatever reason.
“A change in United States State Department policy that took effect in 2010 means that trans Americans can obtain a passport reflecting their current (binary) gender so long as they have a certification from a physician confirming that they have had clinical treatment determined to be appropriate in their individual case to facilitate gender transition,” Bersinger added. “This supplanted the State Department’s earlier policy, which required documentation of sex reassignment surgery. We’re encouraging folks to move quickly on the passport issue also because that State Department policy could change by executive order under the new administration.”
Though it’s not necessary to have a lawyer to obtain a passport with proper identification details, changing gender markers in Georgia can be an incredibly complicated process which requires proof of a “surgical procedure,” and it can be very helpful to have knowledgeable lawyers on board.
Matthew Wilson, a lawyer with Akin & Tate P.C., recounted an amusing moment from a recent court appearance in Augusta: “The client was seeking a name change and the judge seemed very skeptical. When the lawyers began and it was revealed that they were from Alston & Bird, the judge said, ‘We’ve got two Atlanta lawyers here today just for a name change?’ The judge ultimately granted the name change and I’m pretty sure it’s because the lawyers were from such a well-known firm. But we’ve also seen judges who are sympathetic to the name change but might, for whatever reason, feel it is not in keeping with the spirit of the law or public opinion outside the metro area. In these areas, we’ve had good success with litigators who know how to navigate the process without calling unnecessary attention to their client’s case. A lot of times this means having a lawyer who regularly practices before the judge and can use their credibility to help their client. I had this occur recently in a rural, north Georgia county. I knew the judge and although it was clear he was uncomfortable with the case, he made the comment to me: ‘If someone wants to change the name their parents gave them, who am I to say no?’”
Connecting trans clients with lawyers surprisingly fast
It isn’t always that simple, though. In Georgia, a name change must take place in a court and it often takes longer than the gender change process. Those wishing to change their legal name must advertise in a local paper for at least 30 days before the court will process the request, and the change can still take up to 90 days. Because there are so many individual details to look after, having a knowledgeable lawyer can bring an incredible advantage.
In a world known for paperwork, hourly billing and procedural red tape, the effort to connect trans clients with lawyers has been surprisingly fast. Once an individual contacts Trans Law Help, a call goes out to the network of lawyers and the client is matched, often in less than half an hour. From there, Bersinger and the other coordinators step back and the volunteering attorney takes over.
Bersinger’s certainly proud of her efforts and the willingness of so many from the law community to step up and help.
“From my perspective, the thing that has impressed me most about this effort has been how many people want to help and how eager they are to help,” she says. “It’s been so encouraging, especially in an otherwise uncertain time for marginalized communities. And so that’s been ‘fun,’ I guess, in that it’s just so damn good to see so many people so eager to do the right thing.”
Those in need of assistance can visit translawhelp.org or email Amanda Seals Bersinger directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.