It’s easy to take for granted that the documents and accounts we use every day reflect our true conception of ourselves – knowing that we’ll see the right name or gender identity listed on things like our driver’s license, birth certificates, Social Security information, and passports – and all of the many, many other things that flow from one or more of those documents: voter registration, insurance information, bank accounts, credit cards, and more.
For a growing number of LGBTQ+ people, however, using any one of those documents can be a jarring and demoralizing experience when they don’t reflect who they truly are – there’s a term for that: “deadnaming.”
Having a deadname (the birth name for someone who has changed their name to fit their gender identity or expression) or the wrong gender identity on important accounts and documents, especially ID documents, impacts almost every aspect of someone’s life. It can be disorienting to anyone forced to use a name that isn’t yours, and work with papers or documents that say you are someone you’re not.
Updating or correcting important ID documents can be a long process, but it’s usually not quite as difficult a process as you might think.
Changing the Name on a Birth Certificate
For most people, the most important and first document to update will be their birth certificate. This is usually the document from which the most important daily ID flows, like driver’s licenses or other credentials.
Historically, the most common changes to birth certificates have been name changes, and courts in Wisconsin are very familiar with that process. In Wisconsin (and many other states), changing a birth certificate requires a court order specifying the information to be updated or corrected.1
Petitioners in Wisconsin are encouraged to use the forms available on the circuit court’s website when submitting their request for a name change.
Note that petitioners with professional licenses – teachers excepted – are required to show proof of permission from their license’s governing body before they can obtain a name change in Wisconsin – meaning that any Wisconsin attorneys petitioning for a name change need to submit proof that they’ve notified the State Bar.2
Additionally, petitioners for a name change are categorically disqualified if they are required to register as a sex offender.3
Anyone not disqualified should file for a name change in Wisconsin with the circuit court in their county of residence.
Name changes in Wisconsin are public by default, which means that they will appear on the court’s online database with the caption “In re the name change of [Original Name].” Just under half of states, including Wisconsin, have a publication requirement that must be met before a name change can be granted. In Wisconsin, petitioners must publish a notice of the proposed name change for three consecutive weeks in a local newspaper of record, and submit proof of that publication to the court. Other states have longer or shorter publication periods, or require notice be given only to “interested parties” such as a spouse or children.
Petitioners can request that a court waive the publication requirement in Wisconsin by showing that there would be risk of endangerment if they were required to publish the name change.4
Once the publication requirement is satisfied or waived, the petitioner will have a hearing before a judge. If the requirements are all met, the court will give the petitioner an order that they can then submit to the custodian of their birth certificate. Once they have the corrected or updated birth certificate, they can start updating all the other documents downstream.
Changing Gender Marker on a Birth Certificate
The gender marker on a birth certificate is the sex that was assigned to someone at birth, almost always male or female.
The process for requesting a gender marker change in Wisconsin also requires petitioning for a court order, and is broadly similar to the name change process. The biggest difference is that gender marker petitions do not require notice by publication, but they are still public record by default and will appear on CCAP with the caption “In re the gender marker change of [Name].”
The circuit courts now use standardized forms for petitioning for a gender marker change – they were updated earlier this year. Wisconsin law requires that someone requesting a gender marker change shows proof of a “surgical sex-change procedure.”5
Some states and the federal government may allow for a gender marker to be “X” or a third option, but Wisconsin courts aren’t authorized to grant a request that a gender marker other than “M” or “F.” Proof of a “surgical sex-change procedure” can be in the form of a letter from a doctor giving information about any gender-affirming surgery or treatment that a petitioner has undergone.
Simply getting the court order granting a name change or a gender marker change is just the first step. Obtaining the corrected birth certificate can sometimes take weeks to process, especially if the birth certificate was issued by a different state.
Fortunately, petitioners can start updating certain ID documents with just a copy of the court order approving a name change or a gender marker change.
Driver’s licenses can be updated through the same process as a regular application or renewal, and the Social Security Administration will typically process and issue new Social Security cards with the correct legal name in just a few days after making an appointment to notify them of the change.
Health care providers, insurance companies, banks, and other private entities have their own policies regarding what counts as proof of ID when petitioners are starting to update all those other documents, but many are able to start correcting petitioners’ information with the copy of their court order approving a name change or a gender marker change.
Petitioners may have other concerns, though, which can be good opportunities for interested attorneys to assist with preparing and filing these kinds of requests. While the Wisconsin name change statute allows for a confidential petition, which will be sealed automatically if granted, the petition for a gender marker change doesn’t currently have that option.
Petitioners might be concerned for their safety if there were a public record documenting a request for a gender marker change, or might be concerned about any medical records they would submit along with that kind of petition.
Conclusion: You Can Help
The assistance of an attorney can be valuable to petitioners, in helping to explain options, file documents under seal, or contemplate what kind of evidence a petitioner might want to submit to the court as part of their request.
There are several groups in Wisconsin, including Trans Law Help Wisconsin and the MKE LGBT Community Center, that work with petitioners looking for a name change or gender marker change. Legal Action of Wisconsin also assists with preparing name change or gender marker change petitions.
Obtaining affirming documentation can hugely improve an individual’s quality of life and change their day-to-day experience of the world. It affects nearly every aspect of life in today’s world, and can help save lives.
While the process can be long, and might at first seem daunting, there are paths forward, as well as opportunities for attorneys to make a difference by assisting the process.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.
1Other states allow for the custodian of the birth certificate record, usually a Department of Health or a separate vital records agency, to make changes on request, each with their own set of standards (and fees).
2 Wis. Stat. § 786.36(3).
3 Wis. Stat. § 301.47.
4 Wis. Stat. § 786.37(4).
5 Wis. Stat. § 69.15(4)(b).