What's in a name: The barriers Michigan's trans and non-binary people face in trying to be themselves

Michigan's name-change process is long and expensive, and sometimes embarrassing for members of the queer community
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Posted at 11:19 PM, Mar 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-24 23:19:35-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.  — A name is a special thing. It’s how people identify you at the most basic level – it’s a label you don’t get to choose but can change.

For people who weren’t born with the name that fits them, that can be a long and difficult process, clerically and emotionally.

“I grew up in a household where words and names were very important,” said Renn Pruitt, owner of Red Maple Craniosacral in Grand Rapids. “I never deeply resonated with my deadname, it was always a little bit off, a little bit wrong.”

Renn is transgender and non-binary and began the process of changing their name in late January of 2020.

“I had a mentor who told me that his daughter changed her name,” Renn said, “and I thought, you can do that? You can just change your name? I didn’t know that was a thing.”

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There’s no compiled record of how many people change their names each year nationally, but estimates place it somewhere between 50,000 and 85,000 depending on the year. There’s certainly no record of how many of those people are trans and/or non-binary. The process also varies state-to-state, so information is sparse unless you know where to look.

In Michigan, the process requires piles of paperwork, a fingerprinting and background check with state police, the publication of a person’s former name – or deadname – in a legal journal, and a cost of around $400 when all is said and done.

“That shouldn’t be necessary,” said Renn. “It shouldn’t be so hard.”

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Renn Pruitt and attorney Ginny Mikita celebrate together on the day of Renn's name change.

In other states, it isn’t. In other parts of the country, name changes can happen in a day and cost under $100. Renn has a sibling who is also non-binary and lives in Seattle, Washington. Renn said it took their sibling only a matter of hours to get through the whole process.

“They went to the courthouse, they filled out the petition, they got a hearing a few hours later and it was done,” said Renn. “Having to put myself out there in so many ways [in Michigan] and have a background check just to be who I am, that doesn’t really seem like a necessary part of the process to me. I think there are definite ways to make it easier and way more accessible to people.”

To even begin a name change in Michigan, you have to be a resident of your current county for at least a year. Most of the information and forms are listed on your county’s probate court website (you can also find blank forms at the bottom of this article, including fee waivers for many of the costs associated with the process).

Ginny Mikita, a Grand Rapids-based attorney, has helped hundreds of Michigan trans and non-binary people change their names, all pro bono. She started with her own niece, who is transgender, years ago and has since found a calling in helping others navigate the tangled web of steps involved in a legal name change.

“Trans folks, their lives matter, their voices matter and their stories matter,” said Ginny, “and it starts with a name.”

Ginny has represented clients from ages 7 to 62 and remembers each story. There was the man already in his 60s, waiting his entire life to come out and take on a new name. The young client who took on the name of their favorite trans video game character and got a positive response from the game developer when the company learned their story. Iven Baker, whose adopted-mom Jean showed overwhelming support for her trans son’s name change at age 20.

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Attorney Ginny Mikita poses with a client outside the Kent County courthouse on the day of their name change.

“It was hard, it was hard to let that name go,” said Jean Baker in a video call with FOX17. “But it was just a name, it really was just a name. It had a lot of meaning to me, but this means more to him.”

“It’s indescribable how it felt, the support that you have and hearing your name and the right pronouns from the people that you do love, and you know love you too, no matter what,” said Iven, seated next to his mom on the call. “A name is really more than just a name. It’s you, it’s’ a label that represents who you are as a person.”

It’s her clients that keep Ginny pushing for more change. She’s currently working with legislators and local grassroots groups to eliminate parts of the process that are embarrassing or expensive to those seeking a name change.

“I think the barriers are both financial and psychological,” she said. “The fact that we have to publish I think is probably the greatest barrier and it’s something I’m hoping to work on with the legislature to eliminate that need for this particular group of individuals.”

Ginny isn’t alone in her push to change the publication of legal name changes.

“The process is saying, ‘Hmm, we think that you’re probably a criminal unless we can prove you otherwise…you’re probably doing this for nefarious reasons,’” said Ximón Kittok executive director of the GR Trans Foundation. “There’s almost never a case where those things actually are happening; where people are trying to change their names to defraud the government.”

Ginny notes that the bulk of the probate court code was drafted in 1939, around the time Social Security numbers started being issued to all Americans. The issuance of individualized Social Security numbers that never change even if your name does, Ginny says, makes the publication of a person’s former name antiquated and unnecessary, and an embarrassing part of the process in Michigan. Not to mention the nearly $100 fee for the publication alone.

“We don’t think that these steps are actually that important,” said Ximón.

For a few years now, the GR Trans Foundation has been helping trans and non-binary people with their name changes – obtaining, filling out, and storing paperwork for people, accompanying them to court dates and background checks, and even covering the hundreds of dollars in costs. Ximón, who changed their name legally, said it’s by far the most complicated program the Trans Foundation has, but also the most worthwhile.

“You really get an inside look at just how confusing and complicated and expensive the process is,” they said.

The GR Trans Foundation holds several name change workshops throughout the year and anyone who responds on a first-come-first-served basis is automatically eligible for full financial support from the group.

For those who do make it through the process, finally having a new name that fits their gender identity is a life-changing experience. Ginny and Ximón try to attend all the name change hearings they can and see them as rebirths for those they’ve helped get to that point.

“I consider these hearings sacred ceremonies,” said Ginny. “There are a lot of tears, joyful tears, that happen in these hearings. It becomes just a beautiful moment of fully embracing who they are and being fully authentic.”

“There’s that moment of…this could be the thing that really changes how I feel about myself and how I present myself to the world,” said Renn. “And when that hasn’t ever felt right for 30-years, it’s kind of a big deal when it suddenly looks like maybe it will feel right for the first time.”

Renn says it’s not an overnight adjustment. They had to practice their signature, they had to update credit cards and their driver’s license and library card. Renn said recently, they got their first piece of junk mail with their name on it: Renn Story Pruitt.

“And I actually celebrated it because like, they found me! I’m here, I exist!” they said. “No one likes junk mail, but it had my name on it, so it was exciting.”

“You’ve got to realize that you’re doing this for a bigger purpose,” said Iven. “You’re doing this for yourself and to make sure that you feel okay. And just hold onto that, because you’re not doing this for anyone else but yourself.”

If you’re considering a name change, the forms you’ll need are here:

PC51 – Petition to Change Name

MC97a – Addendum to Protected Personal Identifying Information

PC51B – Minor’s Consent to Change Name

PC50 – Publication of Notice Hearing

MC 20 – Fee Waiver Request