Allies in Law

Meet the independent group of attorneys behind Trans Law Help Wisconsin, and how they’re helping transgender and non-binary people navigate the rapids of a complex legal system.

Transgender and non-binary individuals routinely experience discrimination due to their gender identity and expression, including employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and significantly higher rates of violence. Having state and federal identity documents that reflect an individual’s authentic name and gender can go a long way toward breaking down some of these barriers. Trans Law Help Wisconsin was organized by Abby Churchill and peers to help ensure that individuals who are transgender or non-binary and who live in Wisconsin have access to information about this process.

The importance of the work  

It is critical that every individual have their authentic name and gender recognized on state and federal identity documents. However, for the transgender and non-binary communities, this is no easy feat. 

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2016 Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, more than two-thirds (68%) of survey participants reported that none of their identity documents reflect their authentic name and gender. Nearly one-third (32%) of those survey participants were verbally harassed, asked to leave, denied services, or assaulted after showing their ID. 

Individuals who are transgender and non-binary experience significant financial disparities compared to the U.S. population at large. Although only 12% of the U.S. population identifies as transgender or non-binary, nearly one-third (29%) of survey participants reported living in poverty. More than one-third (35%) of those surveyed identified cost as the main barrier to changing identity documents.

Employment discrimination causes further financial hardships. Thirty percent of participants who were employed reported being fired, denied a promotion, or experiencing some other form of mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity or expression. This discrimination renders an already vulnerable community unable to afford legal assistance.

Given this data and knowing all of the hardships our friends and family members have faced, we want to do our part in addressing these serious concerns. 

How this project began  

Abby’s internship with the Transgender Law Center in California sparked her interest in working with the unique legal needs of the transgender and non-binary communities. Once she returned to Wisconsin to finish her law degree, she helped with a few name changes (including that of her now-spouse) and gave a handful of presentations on legal issues impacting the transgender and non-binary communities. 

Things really picked up when, shortly after the most recent presidential election, Abby posted a brief note on her Facebook profile stating she would be happy to provide pro bono legal assistance or answer any questions regarding name and gender changes on identity documents. That post was shared 230 times (which is huge for an infrequent Facebook user) and created a flood of comments, messages, emails, and phone calls from folks all over the country wanting information and assistance. As a result, Abby got together with a few fellow professionals in Madison to host the first name and gender change clinic. Since then, the project has continued to grow under Abby’s direction and the group’s ongoing efforts. 

What we do now  

Trans Law Help Wisconsin is under the wing of Community Justice, Inc., which provides legal assistance to low-income individuals in many different areas of law. We focus specifically on name and gender change proceedings in Wisconsin to help individuals in the transgender and non-binary communities obtain corrected identity documents (birth certificates, driver’s licenses, passports, etc.). 

At our free quarterly clinics in or near Madison, we provide information on the process for obtaining a legal name and/or gender change. We walk attendees through the whole process, from filing the petition to publication of the name change and acquiring an amended or new birth certificate. We also provide limited representation to individuals who would like more assistance with completing forms or who want us to review their completed forms.

In addition to our clinics, we are developing a program that will offer volunteers to support people during their name and gender change proceedings. We are also creating a referral network of trans-friendly attorneys in many different areas of law.

Trans Law Help Wisconsin is also working on a Wisconsin name and gender change guide in partnership with OutReach and finishing up our website.

Where we hope to go  

Our ultimate goal is to ensure that folks who live in Wisconsin and identify as transgender and non-binary have access to legal resources for their unique legal needs. To that end, we would like to have name- and gender-change clinics in various locations around the state. We will work on providing clinics dedicated to more specific topics, e.g. name/gender change for youth and name/gender change on immigration documents. We will continue to develop our volunteer program to ensure that folks have support when attending their name and gender change hearings. We will also continue to advance our information request methods, and hope to add a helpline at some point in the future. 

The attorneys who are part of Trans Law Help Wisconsin are passionate about and dedicated to providing legal services to the transgender and non-binary communities in Madison and throughout the state. The more people who know about us, the more people we can help. Please share our information with anyone you know who might be interested. We can be contacted at translawhelp@gmail.com.

Meet the Attorneys

Abby Churchill is a Madison attorney and practices in the areas of LGBT family planning, estate planning, probate, and guardianship. Her LGBT family planning practice encompasses assisted reproduction and surrogacy. Abby is a co-author for the gender transitioning chapter in a forthcoming State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE© publication, and has authored articles for Our Lives. She received both her J.D. and her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin.

Lynn Lodahl is an associate attorney at Hawks Quindel, S.C. in Madison. Her practice focuses on family law and employee benefits cases. She also represents clients in harassment and domestic abuse injunction or restraining order hearings. She is experienced in LGBT family law and legal matters involving non-traditional families and domestic partnerships. 

Elizabeth McInerny is an attorney at Lawton & Cates, S.C in Madison. She focuses her practice on family law and personal injury/civil litigation, but also has experience in wrongful death, landlord/tenant law, probate, and estate planning. Elizabeth received her B.A. in English Literature from Marquette and her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Jennifer Niemeier has a general practice in Dodgeville and focuses on family, criminal, civil, and bankruptcy law. Jennifer is a 2015 graduate of the U.W.–Madison where she graduated magna cum laude, Order of the Coif. Jennifer is an avid animal lover, hobby farmer, and mom of a spirited two-year-old.

Polly Shoemaker is a staff attorney at ABC for Health, Inc. in Madison, where she provides legal assistance with health insurance issues to families with children with special health care needs and low-income individuals. She received her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School and her undergraduate degree from Lawrence University.

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