ALLENTOWN, PA - Viktoriah from Allentown knows what it’s like to be called outside your name.
"He’s sitting there the whole time, he’s like sir, sir, Joseph, your ID is ready. And it hurt because everyone is looking around and then when I stood up, it was like all eyes on me so I felt like I was called out or something like that. It really wasn’t a good feeling," she explains.
For transgender people like her, being referred to by the wrong pronouns or the name they no longer identify with, the negative side effects on mental health and self-esteem are apparent.
"It definitely is serious. Not only are you hurting this person, you don’t understand the affects that it causes afterwards," says Marsh, "I shouldn’t have to justify or explain my transition. Just know that this is something that I didn’t wake up and say, hey, I want to be ostracized by society, I want everyone to look at me and point and laugh as I walk down the street. If I had to choose, I wouldn’t choose this. I wouldn’t choose this for someone who I don’t like but it is who I am and it’s a part of my life. The only thing I can do is live it to the best of my ability."
Earlier this month, a non-binary student, whose gender is not exclusively masculine or feminine, and their parent filed a federal lawsuit against the Bethlehem Area School District and Colonial Intermediate Unit 20; alleging the 15 year old was “repeatedly tormented and abused” by being referred to with the wrong pronouns and name.
"It can be very upsetting to me when I get misgendered because I’m generally looking like this and so for someone to misinterpret what my intentions are not only says that they don’t really care, it could be (and I misinterpret it perhaps) as being aggressive," Allentown woman, Andie Schatkowski tells PBS39 News Tonight Reporter, K.C. Lopez, "So I can understand when this student is concerned about this because if there is one person doing it to them that could really undermine the way they feel and their emotions could take them down. That’s never a good thing."
John Freund, who represents the school district and IU20 tells PBS39 in a statement, “The Colonial IU’s Investigation did not reveal anything like the insensitivity toward this young woman described in the complaint... Moreover, the law does not appear to have evolved to the point where discrimination based on gender orientation itself creates a viable cause of action.”
But the lawsuit claims the anonymous teen’s gender dysphoria was worsened by the harassment and discrimination they faced in school. Gender Dysphoria is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a conflict by a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender they identify with. A change of name, legal or not, is oftentimes a step for non-binary people to outwardly express their inward identity.
"When you’re stigmatized you don’t function as well. You don’t function as well as a student," says Corinne Goodwin, "You don’t function as well as an employee. You don’t function as well as a member of society. And so our goal is to help people overcome those issues."
Corinne Goodwin is the Founder and Executive Director of the Eastern PA Trans Equity Project; a Lehigh Valley based non-profit that helps non-binary and transgender people through the legal name change process. She says by changing their name, many can have their legal identity match their true identity. But this process oftentimes comes at a cost; financial, emotional and beyond.
"The challenges with changing your name as a transgender person really involves three things. Number one, it’s a complex process so there’s lots of legal paperwork you have to fill out and if you’re not an attorney, it’s hard to understand," Goodwin tells Lopez, " The second piece is that it’s expensive. Even without hiring an attorney, the base cost for a name change in the Lehigh Valley here is about $500. And that doesn’t count the cost of changing your legal ID, your driver’s license, your passport, Social Security and other documents.
The third piece is that it can actually be dangerous when you change your name and that’s because Pennsylvania law requires that you publish in the newspaper, in two newspapers, that you are changing your name legally from Joe to Sally or vice versa. Now that’s out there in the public domain. Unfortunately, violence against transgender people is at very high levels. It’s about three times the national average and so it puts you in physical danger potentially."
Andie Schatkowski from Allentown financed her legal name change on her own.
"I travel a lot and to have my identification match what I look like and not only that but to have the F put on my driver’s license was very important," she tells Lopez, "It just aligned me with how I felt inside; the person I was inside was Andie, it wasn’t anyone else. It wasn’t Andrew and I was extremely happy to align all these things."
Andie says the decision last year to ditch a lawyer and petition for a legal name change on her own ran her 600 dollars.
"Even $600 can be a daunting number for other trans women because these days, trans women are underemployed and maybe they’ve even been fired because they’re trans. So it’s a big concern for them."
Here in Lehigh County, a name change can cost anywhere between 500 and 2,000 dollars. A burden Viktoriah Marsh is grateful to have The PA Trans Equity Project help people like her with.
"At the end of the day, you’re a beautiful person," Marsh says, "and it takes a strong and resilient person to do what we do every day."
Since February, the PA Trans Equity Project has helped nine people legally change their names here in the Lehigh Valley. With an official launch of the project happening in April, the team hopes to help even more throughout Lehigh, Northampton, Monroe, Carbon, Schuylkill counties and beyond.
Got a news tip? Email K.C. at KCLopez@WLVT.org!