The first time someone told me we had to get married again, I did what I always do when I don’t like an answer I’ve received: I kicked it upstairs.
My husband, who is trans, and I were on the last step of a year’s journey to make his legal identity match his internal identity. It started with a petition to the New York Supreme Court for a legal name and gender change.
Once we received the certified copies, the real round robin of legal transformation began. One by one, I (not my husband — paperwork just defeats him, and I actually like it) needed to petition various federal, state and local governments to make the pieces of paper that constitute a legal life in these times conform to who my husband genuinely is.
There’s an order to the process that was made far simpler by the LGBTQ+ Center at Ithaca College. They publish a guide, essentially, to all things legal paperwork for families like ours.
Social Security was first. I applied. We waited. Much sooner than my call to them had indicated, my husband’s “government name,” as he calls it, had been changed. He had a new Social Security card — with the same number, his proper name and his correct gender.
I couldn’t really relate to the idea of a government name, or even a name I didn’t want to look at anymore, but I thought I understood his anguish.
Next, on to the DVM to get an ID card. An appointment, a show of paperwork, a new photo and a $10 bill, and he was good to go. It took 20 minutes.
After that, we contacted the state of his birth, Connecticut, for a new birth certificate. It was much more complicated than the federal process ― we needed things notarized, on archival paper, with documentation from a psychologist. But ultimately, we received certified copies of his new birth certificate with his legal name and proper gender.
Every time a new piece of paper arrived, my husband radiated happiness. Finally, we were down to the last item: our marriage license.
We’d dealt with the registrar’s office at City Hall in Kingston, New York, to get our license the first time. I called that office flush with confidence that this last step to make everything conform to the actual reality of my husband’s identity would be a piece of cake.
Instead, the woman we’d dealt with before told me we had to get married again ― a new license, a new ceremony ― and then we’d have the correct name.
That’s when, as I said, I kicked it upstairs.
Turns out, the Department of Health is where the registrar sends her paperwork for care and keeping. So I checked out the website that purported to explain Public Instructions for Marriage Corrections and Amendments, and read the instructions carefully, as one must for these sorts of things.
First, who could make such a request? Either spouse, or “anyone with a New York State court order.” We were good to go.
Second, for what reason? The document has a table listing possible reasons. Ours was the first one: “Correct the birth name... sex...” I wanted to correct the name and the gender, rather than the “sex” — they are not the same thing — but all right, I figured I’d give the State a pass just this once.
We filled out the Application for Correction of Marriage (DOH-1827), submitted the required certified copy of the birth certificate, blessed Ithaca College again, and toasted my accomplishment at dinner that night. My husband could not fully express his joy.
The end was in sight. All the paperwork would be aligned, in agreement, matching. Finally, the heartache that I saw on my husband’s face every time he encountered that government name would be put to its eternal rest.
We hoped to receive the corrected certificate before the end of the year, so that the Year of Name Change Paperwork would end in 2021. We did hear from the DOH, but it was not at all what we’d expected. Their letter read, in part: “Because you legally changed your name after the marriage, we cannot list this name on the marriage license.”
Wait, it gets better.
“If you wish to obtain a marriage license showing your new name, you and your spouse would need to obtain a subsequent marriage.”
Um. What exactly happens to the original marriage? In fact, whose wife am I?
And it gets even better.
“Your original marriage date is still the date you provide to any agency, but you will need to supply both marriage licenses to prove that original marriage date and the corrected information. Otherwise, you should provide the legal name change order with the marriage license to show your name was changed after the fact.”
So which marriage certificate did you need? The one with the correct date? Or the one with the correct spouse? It reminded me of the days before the Defense of Marriage Act. People would ask my now-ex and me if we were married. My reply was always, “Where are we?” Because it depended on which state we were in.
Then — the pièce de résistance — they suggested, if we wanted to have the license corrected instead of undergoing a new marriage, that we “obtain a New York State Supreme Court Order against the NYS DOH, where the court orders our agency to make the requested change.”
It’s called a Special Action, and of course I’m going to do it. When I called the clerk of the court to find out how, and explained what I wanted and why, the woman who answered the phone said, “Wow, that’s not right.”
No, it isn’t.
This last leg of paperwork caused me a visceral understanding of how demoralizing it really is to have a name that doesn’t reflect your true self.
Can you imagine what it would feel like to face a name that isn’t yours every day? How it might chip away at you, invalidating your own experience of yourself? I couldn’t imagine this before, but with everything we’ve been through, I now can.
The Year of Name Change Paperwork has been extended into 2022. And maybe, just maybe, our Special Action will cause the State of New York to change what is beneath this draconian bureaucracy. What my husband and I have had to go through is wildly different from what two cisgender partners in our position would have encountered. This is separate, and it’s not equal.
HuffPost received the following response from a NYDOH spokesperson regarding this story: “Governor Hochul and the New York State Department of Health are working to address this process for New Yorkers through a bill which ‘would amend domestic relations law to allow for changes in name or gender to make it easier for New Yorkers to accurately express their gender identity.’”
Dr. Susan Corso is an omnifaith minister. She has had a spiritual counseling practice for 40 years, and is the author of many books, both fiction and nonfiction. Her spiritual work is online here. Her fiction is here.
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