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Changing your legal name or gender in King County could get a little easier

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Jon Tyson via Unsplash

King County's Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Inclusion task force has proposed a series of new policy recommendations, including one that could make it easier for people to change their legal name and gender identity.

The county council is expected to vote on implementing those recommendations by the end of this year.

The report outlining the recommendations asks county officials to add an "X" gender option on government forms, next to the "M" for male and "F" for female. The report also recommends reducing the cost of changing that marker or one’s name when updating personal information with the county.

For years, lawyer and advocate Denise Diskin has helped people seeking name and gender changes navigate the court system. She's now the executive director at QLaw, an organization focused on issues of social justice for people in the LGBTQ+ community.

Diskin said moving through these court processes can be cumbersome. People looking to change their name usually have to take significant time out of their day to do so, sometimes losing out on a day's wage, and the legal process can be confusing.

"All non-binary people are doing is being exactly who they are," Diskin said. "And it's really these governmental entities that have placed the value on what the gender marker of that person is.

"We shouldn't ask a judge — a stranger — to be adjudicating these types of personal matters," she added.

The task force’s report also calls for county jails to connect people with gender-affirming care within five days of being booked, and to move county funds around to provide more resources for Public Health – Seattle & King County or the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention.

Catherine West has been on the task force since 2019. At that time, she was staff attorney at Legal Voice and worked on gender equity policy. She said she was involved in conversations that prompted the recommendations related to county jails — working closely with community members.

“Gender-affirming care is lifesaving health care; delaying only compounds the harm that the individual is experiencing," West said.

She explained that in the same way that someone goes to the hospital for a heart attack, gender-affirming care is important to address right away — something she said hasn’t been done at county jails.

“There were long delays, systematic barriers that were real problems for someone to get gender-affirming health care in the jail,” she said. “The idea behind the five-day requirement was to force the county to remove those barriers, to think about the care in a holistic and humane way.”

That responsibility of providing health care for the county’s jail system rests with Public Health under its Jail Health Services department.

West said there’s a connection between one’s access to gender-affirming health care and recidivism.

“Once they reach the county level, they should be treated with dignity and care, so when they do rejoin [the] community, they’re whole, full individuals, and not back in a situation where they’re driven to commit a crime to survive and thrive in a community," she said.

On July 12, Public Health said the median length of time someone was held in King County Jail over the past 14 days was three days. The agency said that means that for a large percentage of King County Jail inmates, opportunities to provide health care services, including gender-affirming care, are limited.

“Medical providers at King County jails determine necessary treatment on a case-by-case basis,” said Public Health spokesperson Kaila Lafferty in an email. “Patients with current, verified medication support of gender identity are continued on these therapies. When a patient has a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, Jail Health Services (JHS) will consider initiating hormonal therapy."

Lafferty added that Jail Health Services then works to monitor any hormonal therapy side effects, and works with mental health professionals to see if the patient needs to be placed at a different facility. Health records are also updated.

“Patients are provided information during the jail stay to help facilitate continuity of care when they are released to the community,” Lafferty said.

Christina Fogg was a member of the task force for the past year, sitting in for Councilmember Rod Dembowski as a senior policy advisor. She said there’s a level of trial and error that a progressive community goes through, but this work leads the country.

“I think there's this really interesting tension there and this opportunity to be the tip of the spear on some of the most important civil rights issues of our time," Fogg said.

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