On the evening of Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, Hannah Morris’s guests arrived at her colorful Tyler home, a place she calls “the unofficial LGBT center of Tyler.” A 32-year-old legal secretary who’s been involved in local theater, Morris and her then-wife had invited friends—mostly other members of Tyler’s millennial queer community—to an election watch party. Morris passed out spiked lemonade and snacks while TV news coverage played in the background. The invite had suggested dress that could serve as either “cocktail attire or mourning clothes, depending on how the evening went.”
For those gathered at Morris’s house that night, there was a sense that the future of queer rights in America hung in the balance—especially those of transgender Americans. North Carolina had recently passed its infamous “bathroom bill,” and the Texas legislature was making similar noises. There were concerns (since realized) that a Trump administration would attempt to “erase” transgender Americans through federal means.
“We were sitting around listening to each other’s fears about the future,” Morris recalls. “We talked about the number of reported homicides of transgender people in the United States, a number that has grown every year since I started tracking it personally four years ago.” Morris says part of the pain of such stories is the fact that police reports and media often refer to transgender victims by the name printed on their driver’s license or birth certificate—names that often don’t match the ones victims used in their daily lives. “I was very, very worried that a friend of mine was going to become a hashtag, and that we were going to have to fight very, very hard to have them recognized for who they are,” says Morris.
Election night went on, and the results became clear. The mood in the room turned funereal. Morris walked into the kitchen, pulled out her phone, and messaged Madeline Snyder, a young trans woman who couldn’t make it to the party that night. Snyder, 33, is a soft-spoken graduate of Robert E. Lee High School and U.T. Tyler, born and raised here, who works in customer retention for a local communications company. After a lifetime of wrestling with her gender identity, she had come out as a trans woman the previous year and started the process of transitioning. So far, she hadn’t taken steps to update her state-issued IDs with her preferred name and gender. She worried the process would be too expensive, time-consuming, and stressful, especially for a trans person living in conservative Smith County on a modest salary. Morris felt Snyder could no longer afford to wait.
On the other end of the phone, Snyder listened to Morris’s pitch: yes, it would take time and money, and yes, it would probably be a big headache. But under the new president, the opportunity could vanish altogether. Morris wanted to help Snyder get her documents updated before something like that happened. She had just organized an online fundraiser to help another trans woman in Tyler get sorely needed dentures; that effort raised $2,000 within a matter of days. Morris was sure she could get people in her networks to support this.
Snyder thought about what it would feel like to order a drink at a bar, or go to the bank to deposit a check, and not feel a pang of fear when handing someone her driver’s license. “As a trans person, you sort of always feel like you have a target on your back,” she says. “Anything you can do to reduce that sense of being different can help make you more safe.” She also thought about what it would be like to call customer service and not have to use a name she didn’t identify with anymore. “Once you’ve come out and you’ve told the world—or at least yourself—who you are, who you’ve been keeping hidden,” says Snyder, “it’s a constant reminder of who you used to be when things don’t match.”
Most people don’t think that hard about their driver’s license. When it comes time to renew, they renew. If there’s incorrect information on their card, they go to the DMV and get it fixed. But if you’re a transgender Texan and want to update your name and gender on your driver’s license, or any number of official IDs and databases, it can be quite a bit more complicated. According to an assessment by Texas Pride Impact Funds, a statewide advocacy group, just nine percent of transgender Texans have had all of their government-issued documents corrected with their name and gender.
In the past few years, there has been a push to provide legal aid in a few places in Texas, like the pro bono Trans Name and Gender Marker Project at The U.T. Austin School of Law, which went from getting about three requests for help a week to “three an hour” immediately after the presidential election. But there’s nothing like that here in East Texas. The way Snyder saw it, a public fundraiser for trans people in Tyler would potentially mean more than money: it would be a way of organizing a base of support for the wider community, something to build on in the future.
She agreed to let Morris start a GoFundMe page on her behalf, with one request: was there some way to pull in other transgender Tylerites who were in the same boat, and get a bunch of people’s documents updated all at once? Morris agreed; she’d already had the same idea. On November 9, 2016, the day after the election, she started putting the word out.
“I realized there were zero resources in Tyler”
Stories in the news about transgender people tend to focus on bad things that happen to them, from employment and housing discrimination to hugely disproportionate rates of violence. But effective organizing and activism happens within queer and trans communities as well, and trans people’s lives contain multitudes of stories worth telling. When empowering stories do get told, they tend to come from places like Austin, or San Francisco, or Brooklyn. Trans people have far less visibility and resources here in East Texas—but that doesn’t mean they’re not here, or that they’re not getting things done.
Morris and Snyder were high school students together at Lee, but became friends through the Tyler Transgender Support Group (TTSG). The group was founded four years ago by Sam Almeida and their husband, Wyatt, who came out as a trans man shortly after they got married in 2012. After a lot of discussion, Wyatt began the process of transitioning from female to male, with Sam’s support.
“I was a member of the LGBT community, but I was ignorant as to the ‘T,’” says Sam, who earned a master’s degree in political science from U.T. Tyler and works as a field organizer for the Human Rights Campaign. “I started looking for help for Wyatt and just to educate myself, and I realized there were zero resources in Tyler.”
Sam printed out a list of about 30 therapists within a 75-mile radius and started cold-calling, explaining that their partner was transitioning and needed gender therapy. “I got laughed at and hung up on a lot,” says Sam. The Almeidas finally found a local therapist, but there were other kinds of professional help Wyatt would need over the coming months and years, from hormone injections to surgeries to simply getting prescriptions filled. Hoping to avoid more dispiriting rejections, or having to travel to Dallas and beyond for all of Wyatt’s medical needs, the Almeidas wondered if anyone in Tyler had recommendations to share.
A trusted professor at U.T. Tyler, where Wyatt is currently enrolled, connected them with a couple of other trans students on campus. A word-of-mouth network started to form. The Almeidas posted on Facebook, Craigslist, and Reddit that they were interested in meeting trans folks in Tyler for coffee at local Starbucks coffee shops, to share stories and information. Tentative responses started coming in, and both parties would message back and forth before agreeing to meet in person. “It was super awkward and really scary at first,” says Sam. “Would some religious group show up and try to preach at us, or would people want to hurt us? Both sides were feeling each other out.” Sam adds, with a laugh, “I think they were more scared of us than we were of them.”
Over time, the Almeidas found themselves having over a dozen such coffee dates a month. They created a public Google doc to collect and share names of doctors and therapists with whom community members had had good (or bad) experiences. In 2014, the official Tyler Transgender Support Group Facebook page was launched. Today, the group has over 300 members online; between 30 and 50 people attend its public meetings in the Genecov room of the Tyler Chamber of Commerce twice a month. The Almeidas say their membership has grown at opposite ends of the age range: school-age children coming with their parents, and seniors who finally feel the freedom to transition later in life.
Madeline Snyder found out about TTSG from a friend of a friend shortly after coming out in the fall of 2015. Her first meeting was “pretty terrifying,” she recalls, “but also exciting. It was the first time I was putting myself out there as a trans woman. It took me two or three meetings before I ended up saying more than ‘hello.’” She kept going back because she liked being around other people she could relate to—”something I didn’t think would ever be possible around here,” she says. “When I first came out, I was still very much in the closet publicly. It was the one place I could acknowledge who I was in a place that was safe and welcoming.”
Through TTSG’s list of recommended local professionals, Snyder found a therapist she liked and could pay for through her insurance. That “ended up being immensely helpful in navigating everything,” she says. “The first year-and-a-half was complete upheaval, just completely changing the direction my life was going to take. It was so important to have someone that I could talk to and work through everything with.”
Less clear was how to handle other aspects of transitioning, like updating her state-issued IDs. At that point, TTSG had lots of medical providers to recommend, but nothing on legal advice. Wyatt Almeida was the only person Snyder knew personally who had gotten both his name and gender markers updated in Texas. It had been a frustrating and confusing eight-month-long process that cost him over $1,000 out of pocket.
Snyder felt overwhelmed just hearing about it all. She put the whole issue out of mind for over a year, until Hannah Morris convinced her to take on the challenge after the 2016 election. At that point, Snyder and Morris decided to “do it the right way,” as Morris put it, and ideally create a blueprint for other transgender East Texans to follow. That meant fundraising enough money to pay not only for the background checks, fingerprint cards, and court fees they knew would be required, but also for a lawyer who could walk Snyder through the process, rather than have them go it alone.
Morris launched a GoFundMe page titled “Safe IDs for Maddie,” offering thank-you gifts ranging from handwritten cards for $10 donations to Morris performing the ice-bucket challenge on Facebook Live for $1,000. “I marketed it by saying, look, we’re all seeing hate crimes go up after the election,” says Morris. “We can keep our friends safe by making sure their first line of defense is an ID that matches what they look like, and what their name is, when they get a prescription filled or use their debit card.”
In the meantime, Morris looked for attorneys. She emailed queer support groups in other counties and searched under the hashtag #translawhelp on Twitter. She found a lawyer in Dallas who was actually willing to work with Snyder pro bono, which meant the fundraiser could also pay for additional trans Tylerites’ filing costs. In short order, three others, including Snyder’s roommate, joined the effort.
“We can keep our friends safe”
The process of changing one’s official name and gender marker varies from state to state. Some make it easier than other, says Claire Bow, an Austin-based expert in trans law issues in Texas and a transgender woman. Bow spent many years as an assistant attorney general in Texas, as well as general counsel and later executive director of the State Office of Risk Management. She took her career in a wholly different direction in 2014, after spending an exasperating year getting her own name and gender markers updated in state and federal databases. After that, she decided to devote herself to trans law advocacy and legal aid in Texas. Today, she is past chair of the State Bar of Texas’s LGBT Council and a supervising attorney with the U.T. Austin School of Law’s Trans Name and Gender Marker Project.
Bow says Texas is one of the more complicated states when it comes to updating name and gender markers. The National Center for Trans Equality gave Texas an “F” in this regard. First, you file a petition in court explaining that you’ve gone through an irreversible gender transition, and that you would like your official documents to match to avoid discrimination and confusion (it’s a good idea to include letters from your doctor and therapist). Then, you show up for a court appearance and have your petition reviewed by a judge. If the judge approves your petition and grants you a signed court order, you take certified copies of the order and notify various state and federal agencies—like Social Security Administration, the Department of Public Safety, and Vital Statistics—that they are required to update your identity in their databases.
Today, that process is clearly laid out in documents you can find online, but just a few years ago, almost no one knew how to get through it. Even now, because these cases are relatively rare, many judges and lawyers have little to no experience with them. Judges may deny a petition for any number of reasons, from how far along someone is in their transition process, to whether or not they’ll accept a petition from someone who lives in another county, to, presumably, their own personal feelings about transgender Americans.
Bow says judges who deny a transgender petitioner’s request aren’t necessarily doing so out of bigotry. “Clearly there are some folks out there who, for religious or other reasons, continue to have an irrational prejudice against trans people,” she says. “But in a lot of cases, judges simply don’t understand whether they have the authority to do this. That’s why ‘shopping’ is a constant topic of discussion in trans groups.” Through online forums and organizations like Tyler Transgender Support Group, people in counties across Texas trade information about which local judges are well-versed in trans issues and which aren’t, and advise petitioners to schedule their court appearances according to who’s on the docket on a given day.
When Morris and Snyder launched their fundraiser, they knew they weren’t going to file petitions in Smith County. Just the previous year, a transgender woman named Bobbi Ingram made local headlines after her request to change her gender marker was turned down in Smith County court. “Every person that I know that’s ever tried to get their gender marker change here has been told ‘no,’” says Snyder. “Judges will grant a name change, usually, but I have not seen anyone go through and actually get a successful gender marker change.” In Snyder’s view, the “demographics of Smith County”—an electorate that consistently votes for conservative candidates, including judges—explain why.
In March of 2017, the Tyler Transgender Support Group held a special meeting to let members know that a fundraiser was underway and that members with limited financial resources could approach Morris about joining the effort. Morris passed out informational packets cobbled together from online sources and her conversations with trans-friendly lawyers in Texas, including samples of scripts for talking to judges, sample letters from therapists and lawyers, petition forms, and so on.
At this point, the whole thing started to feel very real to Snyder. “I tend to assume the worst, just because you don’t want to get your hopes up,” she says. But she couldn’t deny the success Morris was having with fundraising, the widespread interest among members of TTSG, and the fact that Texas lawyers who’d never met anyone in the group were willing to contribute their knowledge and time to the effort. “You start thinking less about all the ways it could go south, all the little errors you could make along the way. You realize there’s a group of people that you’re doing this with. You’re not alone,” she says.
Coming out had been very lonely at first, affecting relationships Snyder had leaned on for most of her adult life. Now, she was able to recruit others to join her in this effort, starting with her own roommate. “It’s very hard for me to ask for help,” says Snyder. “But this was something that I deeply needed and wanted, and I could help other people at the same time. It started to feel really exciting.”
The fundraiser would ultimately bring in over $4,000 from over 100 donors giving through GoFundMe and in private. Morris says the donors live in Tyler and beyond, “including a number of East Texans who’ve transplanted to places like Colorado and California but want to help people out who are still trying to make it out here.”
“I would have to go all the way back to square one”
The next year felt like a never-ending parade of paperwork and to-do lists. Snyder and the three others Morris was helping had to get letters from their medical providers, background checks, and other supporting documents; submit information to the pro bono lawyer to write up their petitions and get them filed in court; book trips to Dallas when their court dates were scheduled, and so on. Morris’s home office served as central command, littered with manila folders and stapled documents, and Morris served as the point person between the lawyer and the rest of the group. Within a few months, three of the four petitioners were granted their name and gender changes.
Snyder wasn’t one of them. Her April 2017 court date happened to fall on her birthday, and she had driven to Dallas with her best friend the night before. “I was trying not to get too excited, but it was like, ‘That would be the best birthday present to myself!’” she says. They arrived at court and met with the lawyer, who informed them that there had been a scheduling change. The judge Snyder had expected to meet with—and who had approved her friends’ cases without a hiccup—wasn’t going to be in court that morning after all. An associate judge the lawyer wasn’t familiar with would be handling Snyder’s case instead.
When Snyder’s time came, the associate judge expressed uncertainty over whether she had the jurisdiction to weigh in on Snyder’s petition. “She was asking, ‘Why are you not doing this in Smith County, where you live?‘” Snyder recalls. “That’s when I knew it probably wasn’t going to happen.” Texas statutes are open to interpretation as to whether a petitioner can apply for a name change in a different county from where they live; some judges allow it, others don’t. The lawyer accompanying Snyder was inexperienced in dealing with this question. “In the end, the judge said that she didn’t feel comfortable doing it. The lawyer said she would try and get more information, and we would go from there,” says Snyder.
Snyder and her friend drove back to Tyler empty-handed. The lawyer ended up not having time to continue working with Snyder after that, and Snyder’s case was closed without a decision. “If I wanted to try again, I would have to go all the way back to square one,” she says. “It was incredibly frustrating. It wasn’t easy for a little while.” At the same, she tried to keep in mind, “we had three people who did get it done: a seventy-five-percent success rate. I told myself that if I ended up being the one who didn’t get it done, well, it is what it is.”
Morris had other plans. “This whole thing started with Maddie, so there was no way we weren’t going to finish her case,” she says. Morris reopened the fundraiser, explained what had happened, and within days raised an additional $1,300. That was her target amount to cover not only the cost of securing Snyder’s background check, fingerprints, and so on all over again—the originals were now out of date—but to hire a dedicated lawyer this time around, rather than rely on someone’s pro bono time, and hunt for a Dallas attorney with more experience in trans law.
This past May, a year and a half after Morris first launched the fundraiser on Snyder’s behalf, Snyder and her best friend traveled again to Dallas for another court date. Snyder met an attorney named Jamie Duggan, who Morris had hired. Duggan had experience working on similar cases and explained exactly how things would work the next morning, outlining how they would respond if any unexpected questions arose. “She really put me at ease,” says Snyder. In court the next day, she says, “it almost felt run of the mill. We walked in with all of our forms, didn’t really have to explain anything, and walked out with a signed court order. I gave that lawyer a huge hug and said, ‘Thank you.’”
“It’s easier to just exist”
Snyder says it’s hard to fully articulate what it feels like to carry a driver’s license in her purse that matches her name and gender identity. “It’s been a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” she says. “It’s easier to just exist. I’m able to pay for things, or just enjoy a drink with friends at the bar, without feeling like such a large target. It’s still not by any means easy to be an out trans person living in East Texas, but having everything match feels like it’s way less noticeable.”
Claire Bow, the Austin-based trans law expert, says assisting with name and gender marker changes is one of the fastest-growing areas of pro bono legal work. “I think a lot of lawyers care deeply about civil rights,” she says. “They see this as an area where we have serious problems, and they want to get involved.” Bow notes that a handful of trans law legal aid projects, like the one she assists with at the U.T. Austin School of Law, have popped up in Texas since she started working on her own name and gender change in 2012. “Things have gotten enormously easier since I did mine,” she says.
Tyler Transgender Support Group’s Sam Almeida agrees, noting that low-income petitioners can apply for reduced court fees, and that some county courts have begun to streamline the process. “If you can travel to Austin to file your petition, you can actually show up on a Friday morning and have your court order within four to six hours,” says Almeida. As for Smith County, however, TTSG continues to advise against filing a petition here.
Bow says that’s probably wise. She says trans legal advocates hope to work with the Texas Office of Court Administration to set up regional trainings for attorneys and judges across Texas to help familiarize them with trans law issues, including name and gender changes. “If you’re in a jurisdiction where the courts have not seen these cases, having even one lawyer around who understands this process so the judges can follow their lead can be incredibly helpful,” says Bow.
Until then, Morris says she and others in the region learned enough over the past two years to help more East Texans prepare and file their documents on their own in outside courts, without having to pay for an attorney. Currently, Morris has a list of six more locals she’s planning to advise, and is ready to raise funds to help with their filing and travel costs.
Today, Snyder is taking on more of a leadership role with the Tyler Transgender Support Group, helping facilitate meetings and workshops. Sam Almeida calls her the group’s “den mom,” taking young trans girls under her wing. “It’s been a really great feeling,” says Snyder. “Last week I was a counselor at a camp for trans- and gender-nonconforming kids. I feel like I’m still pretty young and new to all this, so it’s been a humbling experience to assume more of a helping role. Just a few years ago, I was trying to find the courage to come out. Then, all of these people shared money and resources to help me get something that makes me more safe every day. Now, I’m getting to contribute and give back. It’s all still kind of sinking in.”
This story was made possible by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, which is dedicated to reporting on ways individuals and communities can come together to solve problems.
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