Canadian Law Students Are Helping Transgender People Change Their ID

It can mean the difference between being able to find work or being turned away by a potential employer. Being able to travel or getting detained at the border. Opening a bank account to receive social assistance or living on the street.

Having proper government identification that correctly reflects your name and gender is also a matter of principle and justice, says lawyer Daniel Simonian, Program Manager at Pro Bono Students Canada, so why shouldn’t transgender people be able to easily change theirs?

“It’s not just an inconvenience if you lose your ID or if your ID doesn’t reflect your name and gender. We require accurate ID in order to access medical care, receive mental health services, apply for social assistance and to secure housing,” Simonian told HuffPost Canada in an email interview.

“(But) the process is not accessible or affordable for most people. It’s a very paper-intensive process that requires a lot of information, and many of the forms are not trans-inclusive.”

That’s why Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC) — a national organization of law students that provides free legal services to low-income citizens and not-for-profit organizations — in partnership with Sketch, a Toronto-based organization that engages street-involved youth through the arts, has been running a trans ID clinic in Toronto since September.

And PBSC, which has 22 chapters across the country, has plans to expand the program to new locations.

“The demand is there and we are eager to provide as much support as possible to trans folks who are searching for resources and assistance with this issue,” Simonian said.

It’s about more than a piece of paper

For Octavius Zion Duff, a 20-year-old Toronto artist and client of the trans ID program who was recently interviewed by Xtra, being able to update his identification is also about taking control of his identity.

“Being able to take control of how my name makes me feel is really empowering for me,” Duff said in a video interview with Xtra.

“I’m hoping at the end of this process that I’ll be able to change my full name and also my gender marker on my birth certificate and on my health card. It’s quite a bit of a lengthy process because there are a lot of documents and a lot of information that you have to have, like one of the things I had quite a difficulty obtaining was the long-form of my birth certificate.”

There are barriers in the process for transgender people

At the free clinics, PBSC law students and lawyers from the law firm Blakes work to help transgender youth get new pieces of identification, including birth certificates, provincial photo ID cards, passports and permanent resident cards that correctly reflect their names and gender, Simonian said.

That process requires a lot of detailed information, such as the name of the doctor who attended your birth in the case of changing your birth certificate, Simonian said.

“If you’ve been kicked out of your house and don’t have access to your original long-form birth certificate then chances are you don’t have this information,” he explained.

The process also isn’t trans-inclusive, Simonian said, adding as an example that the form to request a new Ontario birth certificate only gives four options one must select as a reason, none of which involve changing your gender or name. Even to name a guarantor for a new birth certificate or passport is a serious barrier for many transgender people, he said.

“Most cis-gendered people take for granted that we often stay in one place for long periods of time and form long-lasting relationships with friends, employers, family members and healthcare professionals.”

Affidavits that are reviewed and commissioned by lawyers can help transgender people get around these barriers, Simonian said, but, “Without pro bono assistance, that type of service would be unaffordable for most.”

Finally, the whole process can cost an applicant up to several hundred dollars — fees that are prohibitive for a lot of transgender youth, Simonian said. The median household income for trans people in Ontario is just $15,000, according to the Trans Pulse Project.

“The costs quickly add up. We’re hoping to raise funds not only to develop new trans ID clinics but also to provide financial assistance to cover the cost of fees associated with these applications,” Simonian said.

There was a growing demand

PBSC noticed there was a growing demand for these services at some of their other legal clinics, but weren’t always adequately prepared to help given the complexities of name and gender change applications, Simonian said.

“In addition to building capacity and expertise in this highly specialized area, it was also important to create a space specifically dedicated to trans folks who are far too often marginalized and deprioritized in the context of other social and legal programs,” he explained.

So far, with a team of just two students and two lawyers, Simonian says the clinics have helped over 30 transgender youth.

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