Recently, Transman had some difficulties signing up for basic utility services with his new LEGAL name and Social Security number. Transman wrote the details of the incident to the city leaders along with some suggestions for improving the training for employees who deal with the public; the letter follows this introduction.
“Dear Mayor XXXXX, City Manager XXXXXX, and members of the City Commission:
My name is XXXXXXX and I am writing to you concerning a recent experience I had with the City Utilities and with suggestions to implement better training for handling transgender customers.
Part one of the story:
I recently signed up for service online and received a call that my Social Security number was attached to a different name in the system. I explained to the representative that I had had a name change and he said I would have to come in person to the office and bring my driver’s license. I did so, and was told by the customer service representative at the counter that my driver’s license and Social Security card with the correct information were not enough and that I needed to bring in a copy of the court order. I went home and got the court order.
As the customer service representative put in the information, she stopped and said the information still does not match. She pointed to the gender marker on my ID, which was still “F” at the time; she also showed the paper and information on her computer screen to the customer service representative next to her. I explained that I had a private medical issue that I would be happy to discuss with a supervisor—for safety reasons and privacy, I do not like to disclose my status as a transgender person in public and there were several people in line behind me as well as several others in hearing range at the customer service area.
The customer service representative went to another area of the office to speak to someone and then came back and changed my information.
Why this is problematic for the transgender customer:
- Transgender people are regular targets of ridicule, violence, or hate crimes, often by strangers. For that reason, most of us do not like to share our status with others. Being transgender is a private medical issue and should be treated as such whenever possible. It is important that people working with the public understand the need for discretion in this situation. In this case, two other people besides the customer service representative were shown my private information.
- The whole point of having a legal name change and updating our information with Social Security and the DMV is to avoid having to continually “out” ourselves in public. Having to still provide a court ordered name change document after getting new government-issued ID puts us in a position that is humiliating at best and possibly dangerous if our information is broadcast to others.
Part two of the story:
After the visit to the office, I received my first electronic bill and it was issued to the old name and a prior email address despite my having to fill out the account form online and again in the office when I went to show the proper ID. I phoned the office to have the information corrected, and again, had to explain that I had had a name change and had already provided my ID, Social Security Card, and a court ordered name change. The customer service representative changed the information after speaking with another supervisor, but I am baffled as to why the old information was still in the system. She also said she would make my old name an alias in the system.
Why this is problematic for the LGBT customer:
- A legal name change should allow a customer to have their information updated throughout the system; there should be no “alias” as that implies more than one identity. Unless this is the same policy applied to anyone who has a name change through marriage or adoption, then it is a practice that encourages prejudice.
- Again, safety and privacy are a major concern. Transgender people who have legally changed their name usually do not want their birth name still attached to them and that information available to others. While public records searches may not be a concern with the City Utilities, one can understand how maintaining a transgender person’s old name alongside the new name increases the chance of the person being “outed” against their will.
- Having the old name still associated with the account leaves room for error when it comes to billing and payments being credited correctly.
Suggestions to improve the system:
- Work on sensitivity training specifically centered on the LGBT client.
- Make sure that the policy for name changes is applied in the same way to all customers.
- Improve the system for changing a person’s name in the system so that former names are no longer associated with the account or Social Security Number.
- Accept federal and state-issued ID as proof of a name change for all customers.
- While these guidelines are for federal employees’ records, it may provide a model for the city to use in its own record keeping practices:
Finally, I want to add that the various customer service representatives I spoke to were very polite, but seemed completely unsure of how to handle the situation. We may not have a huge LGBT population (especially the transgender part of that umbrella) in XXXXXX, but there are enough of us currently living in XXXX County that city employees should be more adequately prepared for interacting with us.
I have lived in XXXXXX for a decade and feel it is one of the best places in the state to raise a family; my children enjoy the cultural and educational opportunities in the city. The sense of community is much deeper than what I’ve experienced in other parts of the state and a lot of that is due to your leadership and involvement. I am writing this letter not so much for myself or to be overly critical, but I am writing it for others with similar situations who might be new to our city and not realize what a great place it is; I wouldn’t want a similar experience to sour their impression of the city before they get a chance to see what a wonderful place it is.
Thank you all for your time and consideration of my concerns. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or would like more information.”
Throughout the process, Transman kept asking to speak to a supervisor and was ignored; this is one reason he addressed his concerns to the city manager and commission members who are over the local utilities department.
In many places of the county where Transman lives, one cannot rent an apartment or house without proof of having a utilities account; had the worker not finally relented and turned on his account, Transman would have been in a position of being unable to move into his new place where he had already paid his deposit.
The city policy is probably designed to protect against identity theft and as part of the changes put in place after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which Transman understands is important, but transgender people have the same right to housing and privacy as the non-trans population. There must be some kind of happy medium when it comes to the name change process and protecting the privacy of transgender people in these situations. When Transman had changed his name after marriage and divorce, he never had to produce the court ordered name change paperwork once he had a Social Security card and new driver’s license with the new legal name.
The sticking point for the customer service rep in the visit to the city utilities office seemed to be the gender marker on Transman’s driver’s license; in his state, that can’t be changed without documentation from a doctor that the transgender person has taken permanent steps to change genders; in some states, surgery is required before the doctor can write the letter–and many transgender people don’t want, can’t afford, or have medical reasons that prevent them from having surgery. Without consistent policies, it can be difficult for everyone involved.
If you’re a transgender person, be your own advocate–steps you take now might help the next generation. Whether you are transgender or not, if you’re interested in getting involved in transgender advocacy, here is a link with contact information for different U.S. organizations. Even if you don’t want to get involved in an organization, you can help by speaking up and trying to educate others about gender issues.
Transman will return to regularly scheduled snark in the next post.