Rural Virginia transwoman’s name change denial points to larger national issue
Kendra Brill’s story is fraught with a number of twists and turns some transgender folks are all too familiar with. A lack of understanding from the community and themselves, a lack of resources both phycological and medical, and a number of mistakes that only made things worse.
Living in Strasburg, Virginia, with her grandparents, Brill (top image) spent her high school years living as a gay man. As time progressed and confusion set in, she found herself in a number of life altering situations. Multiple DUIs plagued her as she sought support at the bottom of a bottle. This put her into the arms of the Virginia correctional system.
By late 2011 she was in a county jail awaiting sentencing for her felony DUI charges (four of them total). Instead of a normal prison she was sent to a pre-correctional facility where doctors attempted to treat her for her alcoholism. It was there, with medical help, she realized she was transgender. She started to receive therapy and hormone treatments, all covered by the state as she was a ward of the prison system. But when she got out in October 2014, she lost access to treatment.
In an effort to continue her treatment, she did what seemed like the next logical step and applied for a name change. But then another setback landed in her lap.
“The judge denied it,” Brill said of her first attempt at correcting her state records. “I felt like it was a setup for failure. I couldn’t find hormones in my community. It was one roadblock after the next.”
The Judge, Dennis Hupp, sent the rejection letter only a few days after she applied.
“In view of your felony record, I want to avoid any confusion as to your identity in our computer data bases, both the Central Criminal Records Exchange and the Virginia Criminal Information Network,” read the letter signed by Hupp. “If you actually undergo a sex change operation as contemplated under Virginia Code 32.1-269, you may file a new application.”
Brill was devastated.
“I wanted to hurry up and start living my authentic life that I’ve been hiding for over 30 years,” she said.
Sadly, a transgender person hoping to change their name to align with their authentic identity and getting denied is all too familiar in the Commonwealth.
Alicia Jade Brown, Julianna Fialkowski, and Jacob Haley are just a few of the folks who’ve struggled with rural judges over the right to change their name; something that is traditionally very easy to accomplish in Virginia.
Virginia state requirements for a name change include: be a resident of the state, apply in the county where you live and not be doing it “as to not infringe on the rights of others” or for a fraudulent purpose.
You could imagine Brill’s felony history playing a role in the issue like Judge Hupp said, but Kate Fletcher, a Richmond Attorney with a history of LGBTQ issues (including name change cases) thinks DUIs are not enough to hold back a request.
“Can you imagine if every woman who wanted to get married and change her name but had a DUI, wasn’t allowed to?” Fletcher said in an interview with GayRVA.
And as for concerns over state criminal databases tracking names correctly, Richmond-based criminal defense attorney Joan J. Burroughs said the judge might be a bit off base there too. Burroughs is familiar with working with clients who have used multiple names or known aliases.
“My guess is that [Judge Hupp] wanted a nice, sort of reasonable sounding rationale for denying a name change that he/she was likely uncomfortable with,” Burroughs said. ”I don’t know this judge or jurisdiction, but state-level Virginia courtrooms aren’t exactly a bastion of gay/trans rights.”
Another point Fletcher singled in on is the statute used by Hupp deals with changing names on birth certificates, not other state documents. To change your name on your birth certificate a medical procedure might be required, but for state records, the threshold is much smaller.
While there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel for Brill, the issues she’s faced – from incarceration to alcoholism and all the fallout that followed – could be traced back to the lack of acceptance for transgender individuals more broadly.
“Trans and gender nonconforming folks experience extreme rates of over criminalization,” said Sasha Buchert, staff attorney and policy counsel with the National Transgender Law Center based in Oregon.
Burchet described the systemic issues trans folks face from their early days in school to trying to get work later in life.
“It starts with the school to prison pipeline. LGBTQ students are over disciplined in the school system, often even being harassed or discriminated against by teachers,” she said. “It leads to situations where LGBTQ students don’t feel safe in schools so they leave.”
This leads to incredibly high homelessness rates for LGBTQ youth, as much as 40% of the total homeless youth population according to a 2012 study conducted by the Williams Institute. And as you can imagine, when you’re homeless and aren’t able to go to school you’re much more likely to get involved int he criminal justice system.
Even if you make it through school, if you’re unable to get or keep a job because your trans, you can similarly end up on the street and in the system, and trans people experience joblessness at twice the normal rate, according to a 2009 study from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
“If you’re not getting harassed or arrested for loitering or sleeping on the street, your often entangled in the street economy – theft, drug sales or sex work,” Buchert said. ”Inevitably you’re funneled into the criminal justice system.”
As for Brills name-change situation in specific, Buchert pointed to the complications that arise for trans people when they are denied simple name changes.
“[It] is not helpful to anyone including Kendra herself or anyone seeking to identify her,” she said. “It’s an outdated policy.”
Brill is current working with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund who said they were unable to comment on the case. GayRVA will keep track on her story as it develops so stay tuned.
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