U-M, Spectrum Center, Washtenaw County team up to help transgender people update their passports

After spending nearly a year going through the process of getting a legal name change, Arrow Wickett was recently able to acquire an updated passport as well. Thanks to a new effort by the University of Michigan's (U-M) School of Social Work and Spectrum Center, Wickett, who is transgender, felt comfortable applying to have the name on their passport changed during an on-campus event held at U-M.


The school's Office of Global Activities and Spectrum Center hosted the first Trans Visibility Passport Day at the School of Social Work Building on April 11.


"When I walked into the room for the name change event, I knew I would be walking into a space where the people working with me on my paperwork were supportive of trans people," Wickett says in an email interview.


That support was important enough for the recent U-M Dearborn graduate to make the drive to Ann Arbor from Hamtramck for the passport day event.


"I think trans people can very often feel uncomfortable within state-sanctioned spaces, at the very least because of how gendered they are and because of our experiences with the state being violent toward us," Wickett says.


During the event, representatives from the Washtenaw County Clerk's office were on hand to assist visitors in updating their passports with their correct gender markers and/or legal names. Standard passport application and renewal services were also available.


Katie Lopez, assistant director at the Office of Global Activities, says the idea for the event started within the School of Social Work as a response to news last October that the Trump administration might move to define gender as biological. As faculty and staff brainstormed ways to support trans and genderqueer students and the clients the students serve, they focused on helping people through the process of acquiring identification that reflects their correct name and gender marker.


"We thought, 'There are passport events that happen on campus; what if we did one that was specifically aimed at trying to help transgender community members and students that are on campus get this identification?'" Lopez says.


The organizers focused on passports because they require less documentation than other forms of ID, such as a driver's license. But once updated, passports can still be used to help get other documentation changed.


To help plan and market the event, the school partnered with Spectrum Center, a U-M LGBTQ advocacy group. Raivynn Smith, the center's program specialist for events and partnerships, says creating an event specifically with the LGBTQ community in mind makes it more accessible.


"It's not as scary as going into an office and not knowing if you're going to be gendered or if you're going to be deadnamed or if you're going to just have a negative experience based on how you look or your gender expression," Smith says. "I think for folks, knowing that space is set up for them brings down a barrier and makes them feel a little more comfortable."


Pre-registration was encouraged for the event, and organizers worked with the county clerk's office to provide attendees with information on what documents were needed to update their names or gender markers before coming. In addition to standard passport application materials, those wishing to legally change their names must typically have a court order to do so. Those looking to change their gender markers must provide a letter from a licensed physician stating the person has had or is undergoing clinical treatment for gender transition.


Washtenaw County chief deputy clerk Ed Golembiewski says the county was proud to be part of the event.


"We understand it's vitally important that one's identification readily and accurately identifies the individual so one can go about the business of daily life," Golembiewski says. "Taking an active role in inclusive efforts like this moves us a step closer to our goal of improving the quality of life and furthering equitable outcomes for every member of our community."


The School of Social Work also committed funds to cover application fees for any of its students who requested help, and organizers reached out to other schools and groups on campus about doing likewise.


A total of five people attended the inaugural event, with three of them applying to update their names and/or gender markers. Organizers are already working on plans for future passport days.


"Moving forward, we're trying to figure out how to structure it so even more people can come get what they're hoping to get from it and make it more of a series of continuing events that jump off each other," says Kaisha Brezina, global opportunities coordinator at the Office of Global Activities.


One idea is to coordinate the passport day with a name change clinic organized by the Jim Toy Community Center and the Outlaws of the Michigan Law School student organization to create a series of strategically timed events that help people efficiently navigate the different steps of updating their identification. Ideally, more people would have an experience like Wickett's, where they can instantly move on to the next steps of updating forms of identification once their legal name change is finalized.


"All of the systems are really interconnected and working either against or with you when it comes to documentation changes," Wickett says.


Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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