Dallas trans attorney opens legal clinic for GEAR to assist with issues from name changes to employment discrimination
Trans attorney Katie Sprinkle knows what it’s like to face legal challenges specific to the transgender community. That’s why she’s offered to hold a free monthly legal clinic for Resource Center’s transgender GEAR program.
Several years ago, Sprinkle was in line to pay at a department store. She was presenting as female but still carried identification that indicated male.
When she handed her credit card to the 18-year-old at the register, the clerk asked for identification.
Sprinkle said her ID at the time “had this horrendous male picture.”
The clerk looked at the credit card, looked at Sprinkle, picked up the phone and said in a loud voice, “It’s dressed as a woman but all its IDs are male.”
The line behind her was getting longer and those in the next line turned to see what was going on.
Sprinkle said the manager was very cool about it.
“He got it,” she said and the clerk rang her up. “If that happened to me before I was more out, I would have probably just left and left behind my wallet and credit card.”
Later, she sent an email to the store manager and district manager. The apology she received noted the clerk was no longer employed by the store.
“That’s one of the fears of being transgender,” Sprinkle said. “Not having your identification information match you.”
Many trans people simply use cash so they don’t have to pay using a credit card and show ID, she said.
Earlier in October, Sprinkle began a legal clinic to deal with the variety of issues transgender people face. Those range from name and gender marker changes to divorce, child custody, employment or even criminal charges relating to gender identity.
The program is only the second of its type in the country after New York’s. Not even San Francisco’s LGBT community center offers its trans community legal advice on the variety of issues the community regularly faces.
Because unemployment and underemployment are huge issues in the trans community, many can’t afford to hire an attorney.
At the first legal clinic, she talked to people about several name changes, employment issues and custody.
Sprinkle isn’t promising miracles, but said in some cases legal representation can help. But there are legal limitations and companies get away with discrimination all the time. Her friend Leslie McMurray offered a good example.
McMurray was the on-air voice of one of the Dallas area’s top-rated radio stations. When she began her transition last year, she was promptly dropped from the station.
The station manager told her they were going in a different direction, even though the other stations owned by that broadcast group all had lower ratings than hers.
McMurray then faced additional problems. Her ID didn’t match her presentation and to apply to stations in different markets, she needed to travel.
“Try going through TSA without proper ID,” she said.
Sprinkle has been practicing law in Dallas for 20 years. She began her law career as a public defender and worked toward her transition for a number of years. In case she lost her job after finally transitioning, she paid off all of her debt and then began saving.
Even after she began removing her beard and taking hormones two years ago, she decided to go home for Christmas one last time dressed as a man.
“I was terrified,” she said, adding that she didn’t want to ruin anyone’s holidays. “I was thinking this could be my last Christmas with my family.”
But she finally told them.
“Everyone was amazingly accepting,” she said.
During her transition, she worked for a year and a half opening a public defender’s office in Central Texas. When she returned to Dallas earlier this year, she decided to open her own law practice so she wouldn’t have to face working for anyone else.
She realized some of the legal hurdles she overcame were even harder for someone not familiar with the system.
In Texas, getting a name change is fairly easy but filing a gender marker change is harder. Sprinkle said many judges in Dallas County will do both, although some won’t. A name change is filed in family court, which is usually sympathetic, but a gender marker change is filed in civil district court.
A sympathetic judge who happened to like Sprinkle helped her.
“My driver’s license said Kathleen but had an ‘M’ on it,” Sprinkle said. “The judge didn’t even know that a driver’s license had sex on it.”
But when he realized how inconvenient that was, he changed her legal gender and she was able to have her driver’s license changed.
One of Sprinkle’s goals with the legal clinic is to get rid of bad information that’s out there.
She said many people think it’s impossible to change gender markers in Texas. It is possible. Sprinkle said Texas actually doesn’t have a law on gender markers, just bad opinions by the attorney general.
Many think they have to file name changes and gender marker changes separately. They don’t. When filed together, the case goes into the civil district court.
Most rely on old information that they need a surgeon’s letter to change social security information. In July, rules changed and now only a doctor’s note that the person is receiving necessary medical treatment is needed.
Other legal concerns may seem common but may have special implications for someone who’s transitioning. A lot of people divorce, but Sprinkle said it’s not uncommon for a spouse to use blackmail as a form of retaliation, threatening to out the trans partner to an employer or family.
While many custody cases are decided against a spouse who has come out as gay or lesbian, more and more judges especially in urban areas are discounting that as a reason to deny custody.
But trans parents are usually painted as unfit or worse in court and often are denied even visitation rights. Many judges don’t understand what transgender means and insist the parent only visit dressed as the birth sex.
Sprinkle can’t guarantee success, but can certainly help with legal hurdles.
“Criminal history can affect a name change,” she said.
She said Texas law forbids a name change if its intent is to defraud or avoid debt. One client of hers had legal problems related to drugs.
The law specifies waiting two years after final disposition of the case before a name change can occur. So she advised her client to file in the spring before completing that part of her transition.
GEAR coordinator Blair High said the new legal clinic — along with the health clinic — is one of the most important things they’ve offered since GEAR began in 2005.
“Some are scared to death to walk into the courthouse,” High said.
She said the clinic was a place to just get answers. And just having someone go to the courthouse who’s been through the experience and knows what they’re doing will put a lot of people’s minds at ease.
“Five or six years ago, you were on your own,” High said. “You didn’t know what to do about your job, your marriage. I remember just going out buying clothes and coming home crying.”
Sprinkle hopes her experience will help a number of people with their transitions. She said something as simple as a name change that they want to file themselves can be even easier when someone hands them the correct form and tells them where to file it.
She said she’ll be offering forms and advice without charge at the new legal clinic but will be available to retain for those with ongoing proceedings.
GEAR legal clinic is held the first Wednesday of the month at Resource Center. To make an appointment, call 214-540-4498.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 11,, 2013.