Attorney Bary Hausrath helps trans folks change their names, gender assignments
In 1969, protests over the treatment of the queer community by police came after The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, was raided. The ensuing rebellion has become a rallying point for LGBTQ+ rights.
To mark the anniversary of those events, VPM News is highlighting some of the queer leaders in Richmond whose work has had a direct impact on the lives of other LGBTQ+ Virginians.
For transgender people, legally changing your name and gender markers is a big deal. How they’re identified in government documents affects every facet of life — from their ability to find a job to their physical safety and mental health. And too often, experts say, the process of applying for those changes discourages and disempowers trans people.
To address the issue in Virginia, attorney Bary Hausrath began running free gender marker and name changing clinics across the commonwealth for transgender people in 2014. He also uses his practice to counsel transgender clients on the process, offering his first consultation with clients free of charge.
That work, according to Hausrath and his clients, saves lives.
“It's important for folks to be able to move about freely in the world — safe — knowing that they are who they say they are, and that no one can say that they aren't,” Hausrath said.
Thalia Hernandez told VPM News that when she began the process of changing her name and gender markers in 2019, it was overwhelming and complicated. Like hundreds of other transgender people in Virginia, Hausrath helped her through the process.
Hernandez said having access to that legal advice is invaluable.
“Having someone to talk to is very, it just is calming. In addition to being candidly helpful, it calms you down. You are informed, you're more competent moving forward on what you need to do,” Hernandez said.
As a cisgender man, Hausrath hasn’t experienced transphobia. But as an openly gay man growing up in rural Virginia, he said his queer identity made him a target.
“I know that if I had had to use the girls’ bathroom, because my ID said something that it [shouldn’t], I'm sure I would have gotten beaten up on a regular basis,” Hausrath said. “I got beaten up for being gay, so I'm just sure I would have gotten beaten up for that.”
Hausrath left his hometown of Waynesboro after high school and eventually moved to the capital to attend law school at the University of Richmond. There, he got involved in the school’s LGBTQ+ student union, where he and other students debated the nuanced challenges queer people were facing at the time, including same-sex marriage rights and estate planning for partners. That latter sector became Hausrath’s focus even before he graduated. And as a professional, he continues to center his work on protecting the rights of queer clients.
“I ended up just helping friends get their affairs in order. And that turned into sort of a niche, boutique … practice, doing a lot of that work,” Hausrath said.
While offering those services, Hausrath said he and his colleague, Kate Fletcher, took note of the extra challenges facing transgender people in the legal system. They decided to do something about it and attended a training by the National Center for Transgender Equality, a nonprofit advocating for the rights of transgender people, on how to help clients navigate the judicial system.
During 2014, the NCTE was hosting clinics in Washington for transgender folks, focused on similar topics as Hausrath and Fletcher. Inspired by NCTE, the pair cofounded the Name and Gender Marker Change Clinics in Richmond.
“I wanted to help people reclaim their agency, and there aren't a whole lot of ways to do that,” Hausrath said. “This vital, life-saving work was being withheld from those who couldn't afford it. And that's a common thread in our society.”
According to Hausrath, lawyers in Virginia were charging between $750 and $1,250 to advise clients seeking name and gender marker changes at the time he started the clinic.
A safety issue
A national report released in April by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit working to end suicide among LGBTQ+ young people, found that transgender and nonbinary youth who updated documents to match their gender identity were significantly less likely to attempt suicide than those who could not augment their paperwork.
“Plenty of folks need that just in order to live as their authentic self, to be recognized by the government and by institutions and just kind of for their own self confirmation,” Hernandez said. “To just live as who they actually are, and not be known under a name that is not them or a gender marker that is not them and could possibly have put them in danger… .”
Access to IDs that accurately reflect someone’s identity is a safety issue for transgender people. When their identity is outed by their legal documents, they become vulnerable to transphobic discrimination that might otherwise have been avoided.
Today, transgender people are four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violent crimes, including murder, according to a study by the Williams Institute School of Law.
Transrespect vs. Transphobia Worldwide, a nonprofit organization that monitors violence against transgender people, reported that last year, 375 transgender and gender-diverse people were murdered. Last year was the deadliest year for transgender people since the group began monitoring those statistics in 2009.
In Virginia, until 2021, someone who assaulted or killed a transgender person could qualify for a lesser sentence using the “gay panic” defense, where a defendant claims they were provoked by discovering a person’s LGBTQ status. The same year that the defense was abolished, a Blacksburg resident was killed by Isimemen Etute, who told police he beat the person after learning they were not then presenting as cisgender. Etute was acquitted in May of second-degree murder by a jury.
“Whenever folks are in a situation where people are inclined to perpetrate some sort of violence or harassment against them, the notion that someone is pretending to be someone that they're not is something that gives people in their minds, I think, an excuse to act out on whatever ill will or whatever intentions they may have,” Hausrath said.
Legal clinics for transgender Virginians
Hausrath has supervised 25 in-person clinics across the commonwealth since he and Fletcher founded the program together. Eleven of those clinics were in the Richmond area, hosted by several local queer organizations like Health Brigade, Side by Side and Diversity Richmond. In total, Hausrath said he’s helped 502 people access gender assignment or name changing legal services.
For some of these area events, Hausrath partnered with Equality Virginia to hold legal clinics during the organization’s annual Transgender Information and Empowerment Summit. Hernandez, who worked as program director of Equality Virginia’s Trans Visibility Initiative between 2018 and 2022, said those clinics were extremely popular.
“The legal services were probably the most-used resource at those events,” she said. “Having one hour of a lawyer's time can go such a long way in getting this process knocked out.”
The clinics were staffed by law students that Hausrath trained to serve transgender clients. Over the years, he said he’s trained 150 attorneys and law students to assist in name and gender marker changes. That’s an important part of their goal, because Hernandez and Hausrath said too few people in the legal system know how to help transgender people.
“Trans people in particular have some extra stuff to navigate. You have to anticipate the unfamiliarity that a lot of the legal system is going to have with you,” Hernandez said.
The clinics moved online when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, but they’re still happening on a regular basis.
Changing identifying documents in Virginia
According to Hausrath, the process of applying for these legal changes is not only inconvenient, but it perpetrates further violence against transgender people by violating their privacy and threatening their anonymity.
“The statutory process makes name changes an inherently dangerous process for trans individuals,” Hausrath said.
In order to change the name on their Virginia birth certificate, someone has to first petition the circuit court in the locality where they were born. According to Hausrath, a transgender person’s “dead name” — the name their parents gave them, which does not align with their current gender identity — can be outed by judicial records of their petition. The only way to seal those records is to prove to the court that there is a specific and imminent threat to the petitioner’s safety.
“Under Virginia law — ‘mere generalized concern’ is the phrase that the courts use — is not sufficient to justify sealing a record,” Hausrath said. “So, just because I'm worried that somebody might harass me is not enough justification. People [must] have, in the past, harassed me.”
Once that petition is granted, transgender and nonbinary people in Virginia can use their updated birth certificate to apply for a new driver’s license. To change the gender marker on a license in the commonwealth, transgender and nonbinary people simply have to check a box identifying their gender.
To legally change the gender marker on someone’s Virginia birth certificate, they also need to petition the government, and their petition must include a note from a healthcare provider stating that they have undergone “clinically appropriate treatment” for gender transition. Proof of this kind of treatment is also required for Virginians who want to change their identifying markers on their social security card.
“If it's a youth, clinically appropriate treatment could be as simple as talk therapy. But for folks who are adolescents, it would be puberty blockers and/or hormone replacement therapy,” Hausrath said.
For transgender and nonbinary people without access to gender-affirming healthcare, that requirement creates another hurdle. Because transgender people are more likely than cisgender people to be uninsured, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, their access to this treatment is disproportionately limited.
In Virginia, these requirements are even more onerous for minors. At least one parent has to petition the court on behalf of their transgender child, but if another parent or guardian objects, a judge can’t approve the petition without holding a hearing.
“If only one parent applies, then the other parent, even if the parent who applies has full custody legal and physical, as long as the other parent has any residual parental rights at all, the court requires notice to that person who can then object,” Hausrath said.
Once a petition comes before the court, there’s also no guarantee that it will be approved. Hernandez said when she was applying, she was worried about her case being assigned to a transphobic judge.
“The court process … was expensive and onerous. And sometimes just honestly arbitrary and fickle, depending on who your judge was,” Hernandez said.
Until recently transgender and nonbinary people had to show they had surgically transitioned in order to have their gender-marker change approved in Virginia. Legislation advanced by Democrats in 2020 removed that requirement, but it remains in place in eight states across the country, according to research by the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit that studies LGBTQ+ discrimination, among other topics.
Hausrath said in addition to acting as a further barrier, that requirement is unreasonable because not all transgender or nonbinary people desire surgical treatment.
It can take years for someone to change their gender marker and name on all of their legal documentation, the attorney said.
“If I told a cis person … that they needed to wait a year and a half, or two years, so that they could get their birth certificate, so that they could get a job … they would be so outraged,” Hausrath said.
During that time, Hausrath said transgender people, especially children, remain vulnerable to discrimination.
“This really matters for kids who are experiencing bullying at school and need documents to be called the right name when the teacher calls roll or to have access to appropriate facilities,” Hausrath said. “I had a client … [who said] that getting his birth certificate back was … the most validating moment in his life.”