Park always ached for Halloween when she was a child. For her, it was not a time to put on a costume but a chance to dress like her true self.
“It was the only day of the year that I could dress like a princess and not be scolded,” she said.
Born a biological male and raised in a strict South Korean orphanage, she says she has thought of herself as female since she was 4 or 5 years old.
At age 7, she was adopted and brought to the United States by a socially conservative family that had nine other children. She said that discussing her transgender identity at home “was absolutely never an option.”
“But there was no doubt,” she continued. “I was totally aware that I was a woman.”
And it was as an adult woman, undergoing hormone therapy and preparing for surgery, that Park moved to Arlington two years ago. Ready to begin life with her male partner, she was saddled with a driver’s license that identified her as a man, with a name she no longer used. (Because transgender issues often spark emotional reactions, she spoke with a reporter on condition that she be identified only by her middle name.) To secure work, she needed to obtain documents that matched the persona that she presented to the world — a process that private lawyers said would cost thousands of dollars.
In the fall of 2010, her physician at the Whitman-Walker community health center put Park in touch with Victoria McNamee, a volunteer lawyer at the clinic who had begun to help transgender clients change their legal identities.
McNamee’s efforts prompted Whitman-Walker to launch the Name and Gender Change Clinic on June 12. At these sessions, clients can meet one-on-one with lawyers to begin changing the name and gender identity on driver’s licenses, passports, birth certificates, Social Security records and other public documents — free of charge, no appointment necessary.
The clinic, first of its kind in the Washington area, is a partnership between TransLAW (Trans Legal Advocates of Washington) and Whitman-Walker, which specializes in serving HIV/AIDS and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) clients.
It’s hard enough for people such as Park to change their social identity, a transition that can involve hormone therapy and several kinds of surgery, as well as emotional issues. Changing their legal identity presents a different but no less complicated set of challenges.
Without an accurate ID, one can’t open a bank account, enroll in college, apply for Medicaid or Medicare, or lease a house. Even entering a bar can be complicated.
“You don’t think about the number of times in a day — or a week or a month — that you need to pull out your license,” said Nellie Phelan, one of the program’s volunteer lawyers.
Whitman-Walker’s lawyers began to assist informally with identity changes in the early 2000s, and the caseload has rapidly increased. McNamee, who managed Park’s case, arrived at Whitman-Walker in 2011 from the international law firm Hogan Lovells.
“This was the [caseload] that I never expected,” she said. She had come to the health center as a “deferred associate” to work pro bono for a year until the firm hired her full time. After the year, she has stayed on as a volunteer.
“I’m a straight, white, 20-something woman, and many of my lawyer friends never stop asking me why on Earth I’m doing this,” she said with a laugh.
But others at Hogan Lovells have expressed support. This spring, the firm provided training for more than 50 local lawyers who wanted to volunteer at the Name and Gender Change Clinic — and the list of those interested in a future training session is long.
One corporate lawyer on the waiting list, McNamee said, phoned her to explain that he wanted to volunteer because his own daughter was transitioning to life as a man.
The Name and Gender Change Clinic resembles similar programs in New York, Seattle, Boston and other cities. But TransLAW attorney Lisa Mottet said that the work at Whitman-Walker is especially complicated because it involves the legal systems of three jurisdictions: Virginia, Maryland and the District. And any jurisdiction — as well as any private employer or other agency requiring documentation — can set its own standards for recognizing a change in gender identity.
In no jurisdiction is the system simple. Consider the District, where getting a court order for a name change first requires a birth certificate, driver’s license, proof of residency and payment of a $60 fee. Next, the new name must be registered with the Social Security Administration; only then can the name be changed on a driver’s license. In addition, a legal notice has to be placed once a week for three consecutive weeks in an approved daily newspaper. Running such a legal notice can cost $250 or more.
That’s just for the name. To change the gender designation on the driver’s license requires the signed support of a physician; to change the Social Security record requires a letter from a surgeon certifying sex-changing surgery.
The process, Mottet said, differs widely in Virginia and Maryland — and in this area, people move back and forth between jurisdictions as employees, homeowners and medical patients.
Park, who turns 37 this month, said that it took her a year, with McNamee’s help, to get through the legal morass but that the security of having matching identity documents was worth the trouble. She is able to live with her partner and his child without complications, and she has a steady job.
“Whitman-Walker gave me the chance that coming to America should have brought in the first place — the chance to move through this world a little easier,” she said.
The Name and Gender Change Clinic will hold its next sessions on July 11 and Sept. 12, and then offer sessions every other month.
As she surveyed the clientele waiting for the June 12 session to begin — 15 clients attended that first session — Mottet said that “the optimism of these clients is infectious.”
She gestured toward a tall trans woman in a red leopard-print jumpsuit and heels who was handing out cups of soda.
“You made it,” the woman exclaimed as she ducked party streamers to embrace the latest newcomer. “Happy name-changing day!”