'Name Change Project' Helps Transgender People In Pittsburgh Define True Identity
It’s a fact of life that when you’re born, you don’t get to choose your name. But Claire Bloom, 24, decided about six years ago that she had to change her name.
It took a while for Bloom to decide what her name should be. For a time, she was Dakota. Then Fiona.
“And then, I hit ‘Claire,’ and I was like, ‘I struck gold - this is the one,’” said Bloom.
Bloom first started asking people to stop using the name she was given at birth, Dylan – what she sometimes refers to as her ‘deadname’ – soon after realizing she’s a transgender woman.
“It got to a point where I’m like, okay, I have to change my name now,” Bloom recalled.
But for Bloom, it wasn’t enough simply to ask people to use her chosen name.
“You’ve still got all these documents, and there’s all these official channels that are still using that old name,” Bloom said, “You’re just like, ‘Oh no, there’s part of my past that I can’t escape.’”
So, last summer Bloom decided to change her name legally.
She started by emailing the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund in New York, after learning about its Name Change Project from a friend and former partner.
The nonprofit links low-income transgender and non-binary people to free legal name change services in eight locations throughout the East and Midwest, including Pittsburgh.
Attorneys at Reed Smith law firm and in BNY Mellon’s legal department spearheaded the creation of the Pittsburgh chapter in 2013. Since then, they’ve recruited about 150 volunteer attorneys and completed more than 110 name changes.
By the time Bloom was going through the process, a special Name Change Court had also been established in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, through the initiative of attorneys with the Name Change Project.
The court is limited to clients – transgender or not – who have received permission to waive the state requirement that they advertise their name change in two local publications, such as a newspaper. Criticized by some as outdated, the requirement is meant to prevent people from changing their names to dodge creditors or deceive the public.
But, it’s often problematic for transgender clients, said Judge Christine Ward, who presides over the Name Change Court. Ward cited data that show transgender people face alarmingly high levels of discrimination and abuse.
Court procedure also was a problem until recently, Ward said. Before the Name Change Court was created last summer, all name change petitions went through general motions court, where they shared a docket with matters ranging from landlord-tenant disputes to debt collection. As many as 50 people might attend a single session, according to Ward.
“Some folks that were getting their names changed got intimidated because there were so many just different people there, and so many people there,” Ward said.
Ward, however, considers Name Change Court to be a celebration and a rare highlight for a judge.
“[It’s] just like marrying people, when you go out to marry people,” Ward explained. “It’s a nice thing to get to do because everybody’s happy.”
Bloom was relieved to have Name Change Court as an option. She said she chose not to publish her name change to avoid giving more "ammunition" to those inclined to harass her for being trans.
“Anything that you can take from them that they can’t throw at you is a step in the right direction,” Bloom said.
Unlike Bloom, Zahair Martinez, 31, didn’t waive the publication requirement when he legally changed his name about a year ago.
“I actually was geeked about it,” he said. “I just was like, ‘Wow, it’s really happening.’”
Formerly named Maria, Martinez said, overall, he gets more respect now that the name on his official ID card matches his true identity as a transgender man.
But Martinez said that hasn’t stopped co-workers from abusing him at his restaurant job.
“I’ve been swung on. I’ve been hit. I’ve been spit on. I’ve been threatened to be shot. I’ve been called names,” Martinez said. “They call you all [types] of names.”
Bloom said she’s also been targeted at the store where she works. A couple customers insist on using her deadname and calling her ‘bro,’ and it terrifies her – she has no idea how they know her old name.
While the pain of these episodes still lingers, Bloom described a newfound sense of freedom on the sunny March day when her chosen name became her legal name.
“It’s just a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, like ahh, at last,” Bloom said outside the courtroom. “I just feel like I can just fly.”