Mark of change in Dallas courts

Posted on 11 Feb 2010 at 7:38pm
By John Wright | News Editor wright@dallasvoice.com

Judges now updating driver’s licenses for transgender people

Marla Compton is saving money to hire an attorney and take a ‘gamble’ on a gender-marker change in Dallas court.

Marla Compton has been living full time as a woman for more than two years.
But Compton driver’s license and other forms of ID still have an "M" next to "sex" and list the male first name she was given at birth.

Compton said she’s reluctant to spend thousands of dollars to hire an attorney and seek what is known as a gender-marker change, which she called a "gamble" due to the possibility that a judge would refuse it. 

Instead, like untold thousands of other trans people in Texas, Compton lives with constant anxiety about being pulled over by police, or even having to show her driver’s license when using a credit card.

"If you can imagine suddenly losing all of your identification or having records that don’t match you, it’s problematic at best," Compton said, adding that for some trans people, not having accurate ID means not being able to get a job or access medical care.

"It’s like having a millstone aroundyour neck," Compton said. "We transgenders strive to live a more fulfilling life, not a more confining one, but unfortunately some of these barriers, until we get through them, they do confine us."

Compton said she had to switch jobs and take a $40,000 annual pay cut after coming out as trans, and she’s currently helping to put her daughter through college. But now, she’s also trying to save money to seek a gender-marker change sometime later this year.

Compton has heard the reports, confirmed by the Voice in recent weeks, that Dallas County judges are, for the first time ever, consistently granting gender-marker changes to those who meet set criteria. The criteria include a letter from a doctor saying they meet accepted medical standards — even if they haven’t had gender reassignment surgery.

Local judges’ practice of granting gender-marker changes began in the wake of the Democratic sweep of 2006 and reportedly makes Dallas the first and only place in Texas where they can be routinely obtained.

Randall Terrell, political director for Equality Texas, noted that legislation introduced in the last few sessions would require the state’s judges to grant gender-marker changes if certain criteria are met, but the bills didn’t go anywhere. Even in ultraprogressive Travis County, Terrell said, gender-marker changes are hard to come by.

"To my knowledge, they are not consistently doing it, if at all," Terrell said of judges in Austin. "If there is consistency, it’s in the wrong way."

Dallas County civil district Judge Carl Ginsberg, who’s taken a lead in educating his colleagues about gender-marker changes, said he’s granted a handful of them since taking office four years ago. Ginsburg set out to research the associated legal issues after being approached by two transgender women during a campaign appearance in 2006.

"Believe it or not, there’s actually the legal authority in Texas to do it," Ginsberg said. "Elections make a difference, and I think it’s an important issue in people’s lives. It’s not like we’re legislating from the bench or anything. There’s statutory authority. When we as Democrats ran, we ran on being fair and just to everyone."

It’s unclear how many gender-marker changes have been filed or granted in Dallas County, because until now the cases have been categorized as "other," according to Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who oversees court records. This means one would have to sift through tens of thousands of case files to locate the relatively few gender-marker changes.

But Fitzsimmons, who’s openly gay and has added transgender workers to the nondiscrimination clause in his department’s employee handbook, said he recently created a new case category specifically for gender-marker changes, so that going forward officials can track how many are filed and what their dispositions are.
 
"This should give us a better idea of what’s happening," Fitzsimmons said. "I would say anecdotally there’s been an increase. It’s never going to be a large number of cases, but they are trickling in, and it’s important for the judges to understand what the law is."

The law cited by Fitzsimmons, Ginsberg and others is a portion of the Health & Safety Code, which essentially states that if an identification record is inaccurate, it should be updated.

When petitions for gender-marker changes are filed in Dallas County, they are randomly assigned to one of 13 civil district court judges, including Ginsberg.

Twelve of the 13 judges are Democrats, and many of them were endorsed in 2006 by Stonewall Democrats, the LGBT political advocacy group. If individual judges feel uncomfortable granting gender-marker changes, petitions can be transferred to another court. 

Shortly after the 2006 countywide Democratic sweep, Stonewall Democrats and Lambda Legal put together a forum at Resource Center Dallas, to educate judges about gender-marker changes and introduce them to members of the transgender community.

"It was very well attended, and they had a lot of really good questions," said Ken Upton, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal in Dallas. "It’s was clear that it was not something that a lot of them were familiar with.

"It wasn’t so much to tell them how to apply the law," Upton added. "It really was about introducing them to people who were going to appear in front of them, who they may never have had an opportunity to think about and meet."

Like the judges before the forum, most attorneys aren’t familiar with gender-marker changes, so Upton and others said those interested in pursuing one should begin by contacting Lambda Legal’s help desk for a referral. Sources interviewed for this story also don’t recommend pursuing a gender-marker change without an attorney, even though it’s possible to do.

Stephanie Gonzalez, a Grapevine criminal defense attorney who’s developed a side practice of gender marker changes, estimated that she’s handled about 30 of them over the last 12 years.

Gonzalez said gender-marker changes are typically filed in conjunction with name changes. While name changes are relatively easy to get, gender-marker changes are granted at the discretion of individual judges.

In addition to Dallas, Gonzalez said she’s managed to obtain gender-marker changes for her clients in Denton and Fort Worth — and even one in Cooke County near the Oklahoma border. Gender-marker change petitions must be filed in the county where an individual resides.

Gonzalez said a gender marker change on a driver’s license often represents the  first step for a transgender person in updating their identification. After that, they can go to the federal government and try to get their passport changed. In rare cases, they also pursue a change to their birth certificate, which typically can be obtained only after gender reassignment surgery.

"It’s like having a clubbed foot, something that is misshapen on you, not because you did something wrong, but because you were born with this, and you can’t get it fixed," Gonzalez said.
"My clients relay to me this is one of the most important things they’ve ever done in their life."

Compton, who serves as program coordinator for a transgender group at Resource Center Dallas, said she believes many more trans people would seek gender-marker changes if they were assured they could get them. There are no accurate statistics showing how many transgender people live in Texas.

"I do plan on trying to go for it in May or June of this year — that’s my next big goal," Compton said.

"If there’s hoops or hurdles we need to clear, fine, but make it consistent," she added. "If we do A, B and C, we will get our marker changed, guaranteed. That’s fair. What I have a problem with is when we spend the money and we meet these criteria and they reject it because of personal bias."

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 12, 2010.

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