Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.This week, one of the 2016-17 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. (This year’s Pro Bono Publico Award recipient and the other Merit Distinction recipient, will also publish blogs in the consecutive weeks.) Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Texas Tech University School of Law student Derek Mergele-Rust, who helped launch the Texas Tech School of Law Gender Marker and Name Change Pro Bono Project.
Changing Gender Markers in West Texas
by Derek Mergele-Rust, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2016-2017 (Texas Tech University School of Law)
West Texas is the embodiment of every stereotype that people around the country have of Texas: wind sweeping across flat dusty plains dotted with oil wells as tumbleweeds blow between cattle grazing on the prairie grasses. Not included in this stereotypical vision are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and families. Lubbock, Texas promotes itself as the friendliest city in the United States, even though the Human Rights Campaign has awarded Lubbock a 0 score on its Municipal Equality Index—an index that measures how welcoming and friendly a municipality is towards LGBT individuals.
The Texas Legislature is currently wrestling with a “bathroom bill,” similar to HB2 in North Carolina, that requires transgender individuals to use the bathroom that matches the gender marker on their birth certificate. However, in Texas, a court can order that the gender marker of a person’s birth certificate be amended to reflect the gender identity of the person. There are no set requirements for the court order, the court simply grants the petition at the judge’s discretion. To run for an elected judge position, Texas requires candidates to identify as a member of a political party. In Lubbock, all judges identify as Republicans. Of the six district court judges, three have granted petitions to amend the gender marker on birth certificates.
In May 2016, the Texas Tech School of Law launched the Gender Marker and Name Change Pro Bono Project to assist transgender people in West Texas obtain the court order to amend the gender marker on the individual’s birth certificate. This Pro Bono Project is the first of its kind outside of one of Texas’s major metropolitan areas, and Texas Tech is the second law school in Texas to have such a project. Since the launch last May, the Pro Bono Project has helped several transgender individuals obtain the necessary court order. The Pro Bono Project has received requests for help from students, residents of Lubbock, and residents of various West Texas communities, some of which are over 100 miles from Lubbock.
When this project started, I thought that simply helping one person would amount to a huge success for Tech Law. The reality is that there is a transgender community in west Texas that needs support. Regardless of age, race, or economic background the west Texas transgender community now has a place to turn to when they need help amending a birth certificate.