In the bustling lobby of the Daley Center on a Friday morning, people stream through the bottleneck of the security screening and metal detectors. Guards bellow, “gentlemen to the right and ladies to the left.” Upstairs, on the 12th floor, members of The Illinois Transformative Justice Law Project work to challenge the gender distinctions transgender Chicagoans often face, even in the lobby below.
On the last Friday of every month, TJLP hosts a Name Change Mobilization workshop in room 1202, where advocates assist people in legally changing their birth names to a name of their choice. Within the last year, around 40 people have changed their name through TJLP, and to date around 100 have utilized the service, according to Owen Daniel-McCarter, a TJLP attorney. Four people came for support at the February 24 event.
Destiny, is one of the many transgender individuals TJLP is concerned with helping. She described herself as a ward of the state, and despite the long legal process, she is upbeat about having her name changed.
“I think it’s gonna be fine,” she said. “You just have to actually go to court.”
Name change assistance has been provided since 2008 on a by appointment basis, according to Daniel-McCarter. However, this system was “not an efficient system and was particularly hard for the homeless or street based. Having a regular day was the solution,” he said.
The cost of a legal name change in Cook County is around $450. The bulk of this cost is filing the necessary documents and publication fees for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. An announcement of a legal name change has to be published for three consecutive weeks. TJLP has focused on obtaining fee waivers for clients, but lately, they have been subject to increasing scrutiny by judges. Daniel-McCarter said this a major problem.
“Saying that it has gotten hostile is an understatement,” he said. “The process [for obtaining these fee waivers] has changed dramatically in the five years I have been working in Illinois. Before, we could petition the court at any time and any judge who was on the calender would hear oral under-oath testimony.”
Now, a waiver could only be filed between 10:30 a.m. and 12 p.m, and requires more paperwork such as proof of family or individual income. Daniel-McCater characterized this as “rooted in the idea that poor people are lying that they can really afford it.”
Another attorney, Avi Rudnick, said that those who were denied for fee waivers were often young people who have never worked.
“Older people who have work but currently unemployed were looked at very different,” Rudnick said.
Daniel-McCarter said the “hostile” environment is also due to an increase in invasive questions on the part of the judges, such as previous sexual experience, family relationships, and employee relationships, which sometimes forced TJLP lawyers to come back on subsequent days after initial hearings.
TJLP has responded to the new complications with a letter to Timothy C. Evans, chief judge of Cook County, regarding the ways the process has changed. The letter outlined general principals of “systematic transphobia” and how it relates to the behavior of some judges TJLP was encountering. The letter also addressed the legal issues with the denials.
Evans did not return calls for comment.
“We went though the name change law and compared it to the federal statute, which is very different. The federal law requires ‘merit of the case’ but the Cook County law has no such requirement,” Daniel-McCarter said.
As a result of this letter and a subsequent meeting, the time for fee waivers was changed. In addition to the morning call, there is now a an afternoon call from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
The meeting also opened up channels of communication and the possibility for transformative change, said Daniel-McCarter.
When contacted by Chicago Phoenix, Cook County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Edmund Ponce de Leon, recounted how the meeting with TJLP was productive and educational.
“I recognized that the name change process is really important and something the judges should know about,” he said.
The judge also confirmed that he has received a “Transgender 101” CD from TJLP and intends to look it over the weekend. The CD contains information for educating judges on the importance of transgender sensitivity.
Despite the problems and complications experienced with some of the judges, those involved in the service described the filing clerks as always being welcoming and affirming to TJLP. It is the hope that the continued presence of transgender and gender-variant individuals will transform the system through education.
According to TJLP’s website, the concept of transformative justice relies on community empowerment based movements “to resist state- run responses to violence (such as the police state and systems of punishment, detention, and incarceration) and instead promotes support, compassion, dialogue and community building.”
The individuals who TJLP help seem to feel this empowerment after the process is over.
Through the process, Destiny, recounts meeting new friends, new people. “They accept me for who I am,” she said.
Destiny will have to wait until the name change announcement has been published for 3 consecutive weeks. She has a court date set up to give the judge the final paperwork and get the much awaited stamp of approval.