As soon as Summer Lee Falkenrath’s virtual court hearing ended on August 7 and her name was legally changed, Falkenrath began sobbing with joy.
The process took about a month and a half and it was something Falkenrath, who is non-binary and uses the pronouns ‘they/them’, ‘has wanted in my life for so long’.
“In the last few months before the change work, [it] I’ve had a very hard time being patient and kind to myself while navigating the world as a queer person,” they said. “I was so relieved and happy to hear that I’m now officially Summer.”
Falkenrath is one of 2,059 people in Utah who have filed for a name or gender change so far this year, a state courts spokesman said Aug. 10. But how difficult is the process in the Beehive State?
How it works
Statewide, the process varies by state; Utah’s level of difficulty falls “somewhere in the middle,” said Jess Couser, a Utah attorney who helps clients through each step.
“There are states where it is almost impossible and you have to undergo surgery [for a gender marker change]’ Couser said. “And there are other states where you just fill out a form and don’t even have to deal with a court order.”
In Utah, the process is generally a five-step process, which is detailed on the Utah State Courts website. However, Falkenrath found the website navigable to be confusing and relied more on her friends’ experiences of the name change for guidance.
Many seek legal advice. Couser estimated the cost of an attorney to be between $600 and $2,400, depending on the attorney and the help needed.
In order to legally change an individual’s name and/or gender in Utah, you must first obtain a certificate from the law enforcement agency as to whether or not your current identification information is on the state’s child molestation or sex/kidnapping offender registries.
To do so, fill out this form. Once submitted, the Offender Registration Program staff will conduct a search and document the results. A completed form will be sent to you either by email or by post.
Next, you will need to file several documents with your local county court, including a request for a name or gender change. According to Olivia Hunt, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, filing this document alone costs $375 — on the high end compared to litigation costs in other states and about 10 times what it costs in Virginia.
Applicants for a name change must have lived in the county in which they are applying for more than a year. For changes in sex characteristics, Utah applicants are now also required to provide evidence of their medical history, care or treatment related to their transition. (The state courts’ website provides an example: a letter signed by a licensed medical provider stating that you are experiencing “clinically significant distress” because of your current sex characteristics.)
Gender tagging options include “male”, “female” and “X”, which is intended for non-binary people and people with a gender identity other than male or female. Applicants must also provide proof that they have publicly expressed the gender they want their ID to reflect within the past six months, and proof that the change requested is “a true and important part of your identity.” .
Once everything is filed, a court hearing will be scheduled. During the hearing, a district court judge may ask about your application before deciding whether or not to grant it.
An “intimidating” process
Couser said it can be frightening to face a jury trial, but especially for transgender people, who face high levels of harassment and discrimination and who are more than four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than in cisgender people.
“Some [the judges] Make them virtual, but appearing before the judge can be really intimidating,” she said.
Noah Burke, who changed his name when he was 18, said it was “really hard” to go to court and explain why he wanted the name change.
“That was definitely a curveball [to do it in person]because I have social anxiety,” Burke said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual hearings can be requested and are more common – but the decision rests with the judge.
Couser thinks the process could be “streamlined” if more judges reviewed the applicant’s documents without allowing them to appear in court. And Hunt said Utah could benefit from more name/gender change clinics to help groups of people update their records.
Hunt added that changing one’s name or gender designation is “not just a matter of respect and dignity, but also a matter of practicality.”
“There are very few areas of transportation in modern society that don’t require proof of identity,” Hunt said, including renting a car or renting an apartment.
Upon approval by a judge, Utah applicants must submit their court-signed application and a court-ordered record change document to the Utah Office of Vital Records and Statistics. The office charges a small fee for the change.
Once the application is complete, an applicant can update their identification information to reflect their new name or gender, including their driver’s license, passport, and social security card. Also, it can update banks, employers, schools, libraries and more.
Concerns about recent process changes
Although the Utah process is comparatively costly and cumbersome, a 2021 state Supreme Court ruling made it more accessible.
At the time, the state Supreme Court ruled that two transgender people from Utah can put the gender they identify on their driver’s licenses and other state records. The decision overturned a lower court ruling that found the plaintiffs could not legally change their sex characteristics.
The ruling lasted three years but is intended to ensure that transgender Utahhers, regardless of where they live in the state, have more equal access to gender modification. Prior to the decision, some circuit court judges approved the changes and others did not, Couser said.
Notably, prior to the ruling, most Davis County judges denied gender change requests, Couser said, calling it a “frustrating time.”
“I just think that everyone should interpret the law independently and not come together as a group, but I don’t think anything says that you can’t,” Couser said of the Davis County judges at the time.
Couser noted that the Supreme Court case “clarified the process but still did not materially change it.”
She added that state laws passed earlier in the year could further affect the process.
“It built on the Supreme Court case and made it clear that they wanted a letter from a medical provider and also a letter from a mental health provider [for gender marker changes]’ Couser said.
Couser said the fact that it also introduced a legal standard of proof worries her, as it could make it more difficult for an applicant to meet those requirements. But she hasn’t seen that before.
“My biggest concern [from the legislative session] is the total ban on all minor petitions under the age of 15.5 [for gender marker changes] without exception,” said Couser.
Sue Robbins, who is transgender and is a member of Equality Utah’s Transgender Advisory Council, said legal documents that match a person’s name and gender allow transgender people “to move about in communities and the workplace without things.” like having birth certificates and driver’s licenses that exclude us.”
“The ability to change our name and gender marking on legal documents is critical for us to exist without discrimination and resistance,” said Robbins, who has changed her name and gender marking over the past decade.
“The ability to change our name and gender marking on legal documents is critical for us to exist without discrimination and resistance,” said Robbins, who changed her name and gender marking 10 years ago.
Even if Falkenrath has been one of the most people in the summer for more than a year, the legal implementation of this change gives them the feeling that “no one can take that from me”.
“I feel empowered in myself and I am very excited to be helping other people on their legal name change journey by sharing the steps I have taken,” they said.