How I changed my legal name in California as a nonbinary person
I had been using my new name for almost three years, with my family and friends and at work. Every time I went to the doctor, dentist, or pharmacy, however, I had to go by my legal name, which was increasingly jarring, in a situation where I wanted to build trust with my healthcare providers.
Traveling through an airport became an even more stressful experience, because when staff aren’t calling me “ma’am” they call me by my legal name. I would practice my legal name in my head a few times walking up to the security officer in case they asked me to say my name, so I didn’t say the wrong one.
Deciding to legally change my name felt like a big milestone. Nothing irreversible, but quite an expensive and time-consuming process, so I had better be sure that I wanted this. An idea that helped me was that if I change my legal name to something that I don’t like as much ten years from now, I could always go by another nickname later if I wanted, and my legal name would still align with my gender.
What I could do without legal documentation
Before I decided to change my name legally, I updated my name with a bunch of organizations, just by asking their staff.
I asked my college alumni association to update my name on the email and snail mail materials that they send me. I received a polite email response asking for a photo of my new ID or legal documentation, to ensure the security of my account.
After mulling this over for a day, I emailed back a photo of my driver’s license (with my old name on it) and said this should verify my identity. I explained that I did not have legal documentation yet for my name change but that it was uncomfortable for me to see my old name in all of their communications.
I received a much nicer, personal response to my message, saying that they could update my name in their system. They also asked if I wanted to change my title to “Mr.”. I asked if they had “Mx.” as an option, otherwise, provided guidance to keep “Ms.”. They did have “Mx.”. Tada!
I wasn’t able to change my name online for my library account, but I asked a librarian in person and they were able to change it on my account, without asking for documentation.
I applied for an “authorized user” card for my credit card, in my new name. This was a game-changer: a credit card in your new name, while clearly not legal documentation, looks official. I was able to slap it down on the counter at my gym and say, “Please change my name to this in your system.” I also fixed the issue where I would tell a store owner my name, then realize later that they expected my credit card to match.
My name situation was pretty good, but there were some important areas that were still weighing on me a few times per week: banking, medical, travel, and any legal or business matters. I find it harder to deal with situations where I have to go by a name that I don’t identify with, so this was negatively impacting my life.
Taking the leap: getting a court order
You are allowed to use a chosen name without a court order (this is called a common law name change) but you will need to get a court order before updating government ID such as a driver’s license or passport.
This first step was the most expensive part: it’s $435 for a court order for name change in California. California has a low-income fee waiver (so you don’t have to pay the $435) if you are below a certain income threshold.
I showed up at the courthouse and asked for name change forms. I sat down in the waiting area and filled them out. The same fields were repeated several times on different forms. I had read online that the requirement to publish the name change in a newspaper was waived if it was a name and gender change, so I went back to the window and asked how I can do a name and gender change. The clerk said that was another set of forms, and printed me a copy.
The name and gender change forms listed three gender options: Male, Female, and Nonbinary. I decided to list my gender as Nonbinary, which was a change from Female.
I was sitting in a busy waiting area right next to someone loudly complaining to another person waiting. No one bothered me while I was filling out the forms, but it was easily apparent to the people sitting next to me that I was filling out gender change forms. I wasn’t able to figure out what forms to fill out online, so I wanted to do it at the courthouse with the staff’s help, despite the lack of privacy.
After filling out the paperwork, I was given a ticket number and waited for almost an hour. A clerk checked over my paperwork and had me fix a few issues. A different clerk checked the paperwork again and filed the forms, giving me a receipt for the forms and the money that I paid. The wait time was 8–10 weeks, and they would mail the results to me after that time.
In about eight weeks, I received a receipt of my name change order in the mail.
Talking to the Social Security Administration
I printed and filled out the form to change my name on my Social Security card, in advance, and brought it in to a Social Security Administration office without an appointment.
After a wait, I showed my name change order, passport, and form. The clerk said that they only had Male and Female as options and asked me which one I wanted (because the name change order said Nonbinary). I specified Female. There was no charge to update my name with the SSA.
About two weeks later, I received my new Social Security card in the mail, addressed to my new name! My first official ID document. My SSN remained the same.
Renewing my passport
My passport needed to be renewed anyway, so the timing was perfect for that. If I had renewed it earlier, there is no charge to change the name on a passport that has been renewed within the last year. There seemed to be no in-person option for passport renewal, so, I mailed in my name change order, old passport, and form with passport photo. ($110 for the passport book, $60 to expedite due to work travel, $7 for mail with tracking.
US Passports only have Male or Female as options. I selected Female.
The passport photo was harder than it should have been. I went to one of those locally-owned businesses that notarize, do fingerprints, printing, etc. I was stressed that day and it didn’t help to be called “ma’am” several times, invited to check my appearance in the mirror first, rushed through a couple of photos, and then not able to see my incredibly forced smile because my glasses were off. I looked at the photos after I got back to work, and, they were bad. I mean, I expect passport photos to be not great, but, my eyes were bugging out, my smile was plastered on, and my cheeks were flushed.
After being disappointed with the photos for several days, I gave up and went to CVS Photo. Their staff did not call me “ma’am” or gender me at all. I think that helped. I also practiced my “normal face” in the car before going into the store. I got one quick picture, no retakes. The photos were fine. I looked like a human being. I felt guilty for paying for a second set of passport photos ($15). Sigh.
I received an email regarding my passport application saying that the name change order was altered or incomplete. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that the paperwork I had received in the mail for my name change order was just a receipt, not a certified copy.
I returned to the county clerk’s office and requested a certified copy. This was easy to do, although it cost me $40. (The price had just increased from $25, two weeks earlier. If only I had realized sooner…) I mailed in the certified copy of the name change order following the directions in the email.
After my passport comes back in the mail, I can update my driver’s license. I will make an appointment with the DMV and bring in my documentation. The cost to renew a driver’s license is $33. The DMV checks your name against the SSA records so that change had to happen first.
The three national credit bureaus do not automatically connect your old credit record with your new name. It’s recommended to submit a letter to each of the bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion (TransUnion anecdotally seems to be the most amenable to updating names).
Since it’s hard to predict when my IDs will be updated, I’ve booked airline tickets in my old name. I’ll still have my driver’s license that I can use to fly under my old name, even if the passport is updated. The airlines claim that you can make one change to your new legal name, with documentation, for free, on a ticket.
All of these steps cost me $685, although, omitting the passport renewal that I would have paid for anyway from the sum, the name change portion is $508. Definitely not cheap, but I know that this name change will be affirming and reduce my stress in medical, financial, and travel situations, potentially for decades.
Trans Lifeline Microgrants offers financial support and information for changing your legal name.
The National Center for Transgender Equality offers information on how to change your legal name and/or gender in the USA.