Ellen Bertels sits at a table on a grass lawn labeled "Kansas Legal Services." The table is covered in pamphlets about gender marker changes, with a pride flag.
Kansas Name Change Project attorney Ellen Bertels provides information at Wichita's Big Gay Market on June 26. The project helps Kansans correct their names and gender markers on government documents. (Provided photo)

With Election Day around the corner, Kansas City area residents are getting their documents in order as they prepare to vote. In Missouri, a new voter ID law will require government-approved photo identification starting in the 2022 general election. Kansas has required specific forms of voter ID since 2012.

For transgender voters, photo ID laws can raise concerns about their safety at poll sites and the ability to have their votes counted — particularly if their ID lists a name and gender that doesn’t match their presentation.

Transgender voters still have time before the election to update the gender and name listed on a photo ID. The Beacon spoke with legal experts about how the process works.

Changing a gender marker in Kansas

For years, it was nearly impossible to change the gender marker on a Kansas birth certificate. But after a lawsuit in 2019, the requirements became less restrictive.

Ellen Bertels, an attorney at the Kansas Name Change Project, said most people start with correcting their birth certificate. She said it’s considered a “breeder document,” meaning that other legal documents are derived from it, including a driver’s license or passport. Once a court adjusts the birth certificate, the other documents easily follow.

To begin the process, a person born in Kansas must submit three documents to the state’s Office of Vital Statistics.

The first of these is a notarized document that verifies the applicant’s identity.

The second is an application, including the completed form, a photocopy of a current legal photo ID and the application fee, which is $15, plus another $15 to order a copy of the corrected birth certificate. 

The third document is a signed letter from a health care or mental health provider, which could include a nurse, physician, psychiatrist or psychologist. The applicant must be a patient of this professional, and the letter must say that the updated gender marker reflects the true gender identity of the applicant.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard good things from my clients,” Bertels said. “I hear that they’re coming back in like three or four weeks these days.”

When changing the birth certificate is not possible, Bertels said that there is also an administrative option to adjust a Kansas driver’s license. For people interested in this option, she said the Kansas Legal Services online guide can be useful.

Bertels said that while a gender marker or name change can solve some problems, it could possibly cause a disruption if a person is receiving Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare or other government benefits. It’s a good idea for people in that position to consult with a legal aid clinic, she said. She also suggested calling the government agency directly to see if they have a general practice.

“If it’s timed poorly, it can cause you to have a delay in services,” Bertels said. “So your disability check is a little bit late or doesn’t come that month, which is really devastating to some folks.”

Name change in Kansas costs $200 or more

If a person’s name also needs updating, this process is slightly more complicated and more expensive — usually around $200 in most Kansas counties. The filing fee can be waived if the applicant falls within the federal poverty guidelines.

To start this process, applicants should file a petition at the clerk’s office of the county courthouse.

“It’s not like a courtroom drama,” Bertels said. “You can either do it in a way where you don’t have to show up in court personally, or you only show up for a couple minutes. How that all works depends on what county you live in.”

Meredith Schnug, the associate director of the Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Kansas, said it’s feasible to go through this process without a lawyer, though some people prefer to have a lawyer handle it for them. She said it’s rare for a court to deny a name change.

“As long as the court has jurisdiction, in other words, the person’s been in Kansas for 60 days, and there’s reasonable cause for the change of name, then the order should be granted,” Schnug said.

Finally, Kansas has a publication requirement for name changes. The cost varies from county to county, depending on how the county’s legal publication sets its fee. However, applicants can also ask to send a notice of name change by certified mail instead, as a more private and less expensive option.

Harder to fix gender marker in Missouri

Although it’s fairly simple to change a birth certificate’s gender marker in Kansas without a lawyer, attorney Madeline Johnson said the legal process for amending a birth certificate is much more complicated in Missouri.

“In Missouri, to get your birth certificate amended, yes, I absolutely recommend getting an attorney involved,” Johnson said. “Because to try and find your way through it without an attorney would be an invitation for a judge to deny your request.”

But changing a gender marker on a driver’s license is much less restrictive, Johnson said.

“An applicant’s therapist or physician can sign this affidavit stating that a person has been treated for gender dysphoria and is living their life as a true self,” Johnson said. “And they can get their Missouri driver’s license gender marker updated without need to go to court. But that will not suffice for a birth certificate amendment.”

The form is available from the Missouri Department of Revenue’s website.

To amend the gender on a birth certificate, more extensive legal action is required, as well as possible medical procedures.

Missouri statute requires that an applicant undergo a “surgical procedure,” though the statute does not list any specific surgeries or medical procedures. 

“In every situation when I represent a client, I have to get a letter from their doctor, that being either a DO or an MD, who will verify that an applicant meets the requirements for changing the gender marker,” Johnson said. “A doctor’s letter is a must.”

Johnson said that for some judges, hormone replacement therapy is a sufficient medical intervention that causes permanent physical changes. Other judges require that a person undergo a more invasive surgical procedure.

In Missouri, a name change process is much more straightforward than a birth certificate amendment. Johnson said it’s possible to change a name without legal representation, though she often does it for clients at the same time their birth certificate is amended.

The process itself is very similar to the process in Kansas — an applicant submits a petition to the county courthouse and pleads their case on the court date. Johnson said that a judge usually only denies a name change if it’s being done for fraudulent purposes.

Passports have no gender marker requirements

Bertels said that the federal government has recently simplified the gender change process for passports, making it one of the easiest documents to adjust. This makes it a good option for people who can’t adjust their birth certificates.

“Passports now have an X marker (option),” she said. “Gender markers on passports are also now self-determined, so you basically get to choose your own. You don’t have to provide any evidence.”

She said that whenever a person applies for a U.S. passport, there should now be a place for them to circle the gender that they want displayed on their passport, including an M, F or X.

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....