Allison Scott, a 42-year-old transgender woman in Asheville, N.C., says she’s been told: “It’s just your name on a piece of paper. It’s not a big deal.” She says that “shows there’s zero understanding” of the true importance of one’s name. The consequences of mismatched paperwork can be trivial or life-threatening. An outdated ID can broadcast that you’re transgender to everyone who sees it, from bank tellers to nightclub bouncers to the police. “If there’s an ‘M’ on your driver’s license, guess what jail you go into?” McMurray says. And it’s tough to get admitted to a hospital with the wrong information on your insurance card.
Even minor discrepancies on financial accounts or insurance documents can send up a red flag, putting you in a bureaucratic maze to get the right treatment or gain access to your own money. “You want to make sure every crack is filled,” McMurray says. “You’d be surprised at the thing that will jump up and bite you.”
Along the way, don’t assume people know what they’re talking about. That goes for human resources people, financial advisers, government clerks, insurance company employees, and anyone on the other end of a customer service line. You might need to make yourself an expert on insurance treatment codes, for example, or on your state’s rules for changing your name and gender on government documents.
You may need to call again and again and again, knowing you could be the first transgender person an employee has ever dealt with. But you’re not alone. About 1.4 million American adults identify as transgender, the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles estimated in June. That’s 0.6 percent of the adult population, twice the estimate from a decade ago.
Earlier this year it took eight calls for Andrew Nardella, 35, to get $2,500 out of an old retirement account listed under his former name. Every time he called, employees and their supervisors told him something different about the proof he needed. He finally got the money when, desperate to pay for food and rent after a move to New York City, he accused the account provider of discrimination. Scott says she’s been battling for 18 months to update her 401(k). It still lists the wrong name.
Whatever happens, don’t get discouraged. Not everyone will be unfriendly. Gwen Fry, 56, is a former Episcopal priest who now cleans houses for a living in Little Rock. She lost her job at a local church after transitioning two years ago and hasn’t been able to find other work. Through all that pain and difficulty, she says, one of her “smoothest experiences” was changing the name on her bank account at a local branch. “They were very gracious and respectful,” she says.
And there’s hope. Aiden Yang, 23, had no trouble getting his insurance to pay for “top” surgery in September. His employer, a large technology company, devotes an HR person specifically to help trans employees navigate the insurance bureaucracy.
“It sounds like there were trailblazers at my company who made it a lot more normal,” Yang says. He’s overheard co-workers—who don’t know he’s trans—saying transphobic, homophobic, and sexist things. Still, he’s making plans to come out at work. “I feel that being trans is part of me,” Yang says. “I’d rather be out and be visible, because I think it’s necessary.”