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Illinois On Its Way To Allowing Name Changes For Trans People On Marriage Certificates

Kato Lindholm, a dance teacher from the Chicago suburbs, says being unable to get his name changed on his marriage certificate has caused emotional stress. Illinois legislators have passed a bill that would allow for transgender people to change their name on their marriage certificates.

Most states don't allow transgender people to correct their names on marriage certificates, even after going through a legal name change. Legislators and advocates hope to make Illinois the second state to permit marriage certificate name changes.

Kato Lindholm said he's had a fairly good experience as a trans man living in the Chicago suburbs. He said he feels like he really hasn't had problems, until he needed to get his name changed on his marriage certificate.

"When the whole marriage certificate came about, suddenly it was a roadblock, and it couldn't be done," said Lindholm. "I did not understand that, to be honest."

Lindholm has to use his marriage certificate to prove he's married to his partner so he can go on his partner's health insurance. He said the barrier adds emotional stress to the process.

"Every time, you know, you get that little bit of sweat, you get that little bit of, 'OK, I'll have to out myself, will this work?'" said Lindholm. "That's why this is important. You know, I shouldn't have to go through that process."

The bill's purpose

Lindholm said he knows government can be slow, but it should be there to serve people.

"If you make demands on trans people to make sure the documents are correct, then you also have to make all the documents available," said Lindholm. "That's basically how I see it."

That's how state Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, sees it. She's the Senate sponsor on the bill that would make it possible for trans people to get their marriage certificates changed to the right name.

"This is really just an alignment thing," said Feigenholtz. "You know, your marriage certificate, your birth certificate, all these important documents have to reflect the same thing."

The bill would make it so county clerks have to issue a new marriage certificate when they receive legal documents indicating a name change.

Feigenholtz said it's ridiculous to limit how people can get their documents aligned.

"Marriage certificates that limit choices to bride and groom, or force people to take their deadname and use it or to keep it and have it around, it's not a reflection of who they are, or what their marriage looks like today," said Feigenholtz.

The bill could also help eliminate some of the stigma and discrimination trans people face, according to Mike Ziri, director of public policy with LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Illinois.

"It's being able to reduce those barriers, the possible harassment, that would come from having all your other documents aligned except the marriage certificates," said Ziri.

Other experiences

Kathy Flores of Appleton, Wisconsin, married her partner Zephyr Kendzierski seven years ago in Chicago, and they've been together for 15 years. Flores said Kendzierski, who is gender non-conforming and uses all pronouns, started transitioning around two years ago.

Flores said, however, the discrimination she and her partner have experienced goes back even further. The couple have been advocates for LGBTQ rights for over a decade.

Flores recalls a time in 2008 when she went to the hospital for cancer treatment and a nurse refused to allow Kendzierski into the room where Flores was being treated. Only after the doctor entered the room was the problem solved and Kendzierski allowed into the room.

"It dawned on us at that time, wow, our rights were so fragile that a hospital employee could have a difference of opinion on whether or not we should be served equally," said Flores. "If that doctor hadn't come in, I wouldn't have had been able to have my partner with me."

Flores said Kendzierski started transitioning around two years ago. While the couple was able to get Kendzierski's legal name and gender changed on most documents, the marriage certificate was a different story.

"There was no possible way in Wisconsin to do this," Flores said. "We went then to Illinois, and they said the same thing."

Not even the national Transgender Law Center was able to help the couple.

Flores said the matter was particularly pressing, given Flores deals with multiple serious health issues and the couple owns a home together.

"We just don't want my partner to have to deal with that at the time of death or me at a time of their death, depending on who goes first," said Flores.

In testimony provided to the Illinois Senate, Flores said she did not want herself or her partner to have to go through red tape at a time when one might be grieving the other.

"At a time where we should be treated with dignity and respect, we fear we’ll be once again treated with scorn and rejection," said Flores in the testimony.

The ongoing fights for LGBTQ rights motivated Flores to tell her story to lawmakers.

"At a time that we're most vulnerable, we want to make sure we're protected because people who are not advocates as their job, which I am, may not know how to advocate for themselves," said Flores.

The bill in context

Other advocates say the proposal is such a small thing compared to the other issues trans people can face. Elizabeth Ricks is a legal director and staff attorney with the organization Chicago House, which runs the TransLife Care program.

"We have trained people to consider it a gift just to have legislation that makes it so you don't get murdered as easily," said Ricks. "There isn't expansive, thriving legislation, encouraging people's lives and breaking out of this system of laws written by cis people through a cis lens."

Cisgender people are people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Ricks said when efforts to fix the marriage certificate law started, no state allowed for name changes on those documents. California eventually became the first state to allow marriage certificate name changes.

Ricks said laws like those aren't creating special privileges. She said they're including people who've been left out up to this point.

"We have a very narrow set of laws that only fit a narrow set of people and we have a lot of catching up to do to make laws that make sense for everyone," said Ricks.

Ricks said she hopes other states will follow Illinois' lead.

"I think we're really lucky to be in Illinois, where we can do these forward-moving bills and go and fill in these gaps, instead of always having to play defense like our colleagues in other states where trans kids are being denied healthcare and access to educational activities," said Ricks.

What's next

As for Sen. Feigenholtz, she said she wants to keep taking steps ahead for the trans community in Illinois so people can live a life that reflects their identity.

"We're fully aware that the trans community has taken a really huge burden," said Feigenholtz. "These archaic laws are gonna change."

The bill passed the Illinois House and Senate on bipartisan votes in April and May, respectively. It awaits a potential signature from Gov. JB Pritzker.

In the Peoria area, State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria voted in favor of the bill. State Sens. Sally Turner, R-Beason, and Win Stoller, R-Peoria, did not vote on the bill, while State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, was excused on the day of the vote. State Reps. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, Keith Sommer, R-Morton, and Mark Luft, R-Pekin, all voted against the bill.

In the Bloomington area, State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, voted against the bill, along with State Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur. State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, voted for the bill, as did State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington.

The name change legislation is not the first trans-affirming bill to pass the General Assembly this year. Another bill also sponsored by Feigenholtz would let people correct or remove gendered language from marriage certificates.

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Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.