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Mass. startup streamlining name changes for trans, non-binary residents

‘No. 1 legal need that trans folks have is identity documents’

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Kelsey GrunstraTre’Andre Carmel Valentine, MG Xiong, and Luke Lennon.

A guy in America wants to buy a truck. They save money. They have built up good credit. They find a truck in their price range. They go to the dealership to buy it, but when the dealership puts the guy’s name through the system no credit shows up.

The problem? That guy is trans and had recently changed their name. “Due to the name change, I was credit invisible,” Luke Lennon explained. “This can happen often for trans and non-binary folks who change their name.” The kicker? “That piece is not the same for folks that change their name due to marriage.” 

This is structural, not accidental, explains Lennon, who uses he/they/any pronouns. While name changes for marriage are accommodated by financial systems, “if you’re trans, you have to notify each creditor of your name change individually.” It is an equity problem: “For a community that already faces huge barriers to wealth building, this is a major issue.”

Lennon opted out of the truck. Without the financing options made available by good credit, the vehicle was outside of their price range. “I was getting just near predatory rates for loans at that point,” he says.

Truck dreams deferred. But he worried about people whose financial needs couldn’t be deferred, like needing a loan for medical care or housing. “For many, that could be a more high-stakes situation. It could put them in financial peril and result in more serious consequences.” 

Lennon had already thought about leveraging his tech and business background toward helping his community with name changes, but the experience in the car dealership cemented how vital the service was. So, they launched Namesake Collaborative, a program to ease the burden of name changes for the trans community.

Getting his name changed at all was a grueling process in Lennon’s home state of Massachusetts, one of the most trans-friendly states in the country. Paperwork was long, confusing, and expensive — a big difference from the Boston FinTech scene he worked for where digital health startups were automating “complex paper-heavy processes to make them easier for end users.” When he sought out that type of service for name changes, they were only for cis women changing their names because of marriage. 

Lennon’s instinct was in line with what trans advocates identified as one of the biggest needs in the state. MG Xiong, the program director at Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, shared that “the number one legal need that trans folks said that they have is their identity documents.” This comes from MTPC’s 2019 Comprehensive Needs Assessment Survey, but its need is mirrored nationally

“Filling out court forms is incredibly inaccessible to folks who are not looking at these types of forms on a regular basis or who do not have the knowledge of bureaucratic processes of court processes or legal language,” said Xiong. This stress does not include the fees, which can sometimes exceed $400 in Massachusetts. There is a patchwork of differing systems, forms, and expectations across jurisdictions, as Paisley Currah writes in his seminal book on the topic “Sex Is as Sex Does,”“the same individual has Fs on some state-issued documents and Ms on others.” 

All this trouble means that only 11% of trans people in the U.S. have all identity documents that correctly reflect their name and gender, per the National Center for Trans Equality. The discrepancy is not just annoying or disheartening — it can be outright dangerous. 

While MTPC’s small team raised money to aid in filing fees and led workshops to help, there was always more of a need than they could meet. So, when Lennon pitched a process that streamlined inaccessible forms, they jumped at the opportunity to collaborate. “It was a strategic decision for me to not try to take the traditional startup path,” he explained.

And their path was far from traditional. Instead of pitching to Venture Capital, the startup and non-profit duo drove around Massachusetts. Xiong explains that they and Luke went to “different community centers, bringing the services [directly] to the spaces that people are already in.”

Lennon had actually met the MTPC team at one of their workshops and appreciated the community building they fostered. He trusted the organization that had helped him with his name change to make sure the technology he was building would reach the trans community effectively.

After a beta period in 2021, Namesake launched as a website in 2022with input from community assessments. Despite being a tech startup, they kept it lower-tech. “We decided to operate on a no-code platform to be able to build something more quickly,” said Lennon. Since then, more than 500 transgender Massachusetts residents have used the program to complete gender and name changes. 

A huge part of the program was built on lessening the load of process: getting different forms in one location and being able to fill them all out online in one standardized process. But it also met the need in terms of access in other ways. “We are getting gratitude for the simplicity of it.” Xiong said. “That it uses common and accessible language. It defines what certain court language or legal language means.”

Namesake is on the cusp of a new iteration, which will make it more user-friendly through an app version. Lennon has partnered with Computost, a worker-owned software consulting co-op that understood Namesakes’ values.  

While always working to make the product more usable, Lennon is careful about keeping it more trans than tech. Lennon explains that the variability in the community is “often at odds with technology’s reductive approach to an ideal user profile or persona.”

The longer they work with Namesake, the more they are convinced, “I don’t think tech should ever be heralded as THE solution to anything, really.” He explains that their method of development is “using community-sharing knowledge in order to augment that technology.” 

Lennon explains that he is more concerned with making a community than a traditional tech product. “A strong community also requires breaking the binary of ‘giver and receiver,’ which runs counter to much of the startup folklore around serving customers.” However, they “have compassion for any trans or queer person trying to solve a real problem for our communities through tech.”

Looking forward, Lennon explains that Namesake is “focused on creating something more fluid and communal, something that will ideally evolve with the community and help folks feel less alone throughout the process.” 

(This story is part of the Digital Equity Local Voices Fellowship lab through News is Out. The lab initiative is made possible with support from Comcast NBCUniversal.)

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Pennsylvania

Pa. House passes bill to repeal state’s same-sex marriage ban

Measure now goes to Republican-controlled state Senate

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Pennsylvania Capitol Building (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania House of Representatives on July 2 passed a bill that would repeal the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

The marriage bill passed by a 133-68 vote margin, with all but one Democrat voting for it. Thirty-two Republicans backed the measure.

The bill’s next hurdle is to pass in the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia), a gay man who is running for state auditor, noted to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the bill would eliminate a clause in Pennsylvania’s marriage law that defines marriage as “between one man and one woman.” The measure would also change the legal definition of marriage in the state to “a civil contract between two individuals.”

Kenyatta did not return the Washington Blade’s requests for comment.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges extended marriage rights to same-sex couples across the country. 

Justice Clarence Thomas in the 2022 decision that struck down Roe v. Wade said the Supreme Court should reconsider the Obergefell decision and the Lawrence v. Texas ruling that said laws that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations are unconstitutional. President Joe Biden at the end of that year signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires the federal government and all U.S. states and territories to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages.

Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this year signed a bill that codified marriage rights for same-sex couples in state law. Pennsylvania lawmakers say the marriage codification bill is necessary in case the Supreme Court overturns marriage rights for same-sex couples in their state and across the country.

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Pennsylvania

Western Pa. transgender girl killed, dismembered

Pauly Likens, 14, brutally murdered last month

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(Photo courtesy of the LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley)

Editor’s note: The Philadelphia Gay News originally published this story.

BY TIM CWIEK | Prosecutors are pledging justice for Pauly Likens, a 14-year-old transgender girl from Sharon, Pa., who was brutally killed last month. Her remains were scattered in and around a park lake in western Pennsylvania.

“The bottom line is that we have a 14-year-old, brutally murdered and dismembered,” said Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker in an email. “Pauly Likens deserves justice, her family deserves justice, and we seek to deliver that justice.”

On June 23, DaShawn Watkins allegedly met Likens in the vicinity of Budd Street Public Park and Canoe Launch in Sharon, Pa., and killed her. Watkins subsequently dismembered Likens’s corpse with a saw and scattered her remains in and around Shenango River Lake in Clark Borough.

On July 2, Watkins was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. He’s being held without bail in the Mercer County jail.

The coroner’s office said the cause of death was sharp force trauma to the head and ruled the manner of death as homicide.

Cell phone records, social media and surveillance video link Watkins to the crime. Additionally, traces of Likens’s blood were found in and around Watkins’s apartment in Sharon, Pa., authorities say.

A candlelight vigil is being held Saturday, July 13, in remembrance of Likens. It’s being hosted by LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley. The vigil begins at 7 p.m. at 87 Stambaugh Ave. in Sharon, Pa.

Pamela Ladner, president of the Alliance, mourned Likens’s death. 

“Pauly’s aunt described her as a sweet soul, inside and out,” Ladner said in an email. “She was a selfless child who loved nature and wanted to be a park ranger like her aunt.”

Acker, the prosecutor, said Likens’s death is one of the worst crimes he’s seen in 46 years as an attorney. But he cautioned against calling it a hate crime. “PSP [Pennsylvania State Police] does not believe it in fact is one [hate crime] because the defendant admitted to being a homosexual and the victim was reportedly a trans girl,” Acker asserted.

Acker praised the criminal justice agencies who worked on the case, including the Pennsylvania State Police, the Hermitage Police Department, the Sharon Police Department, park rangers from the Shenango Reservoir, Mercer County Coroner John Libonati, and cadaver dog search units.

“The amount of hours dedicated to the identification of the victim and the filing of charges against the defendant is a huge number,” Acker added. “We take the murder of any individual very seriously, expressly when they are young and brutally killed and dismembered.”

Acker also noted that all criminal defendants are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

This is a developing story.

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National

TransTech Social removing barriers to trans success

‘Technology was the key to my freedom’

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From left, TransTech members B Hawk Snipes, E.C. Pizarro III, Ang R Bennett, and Adrian Elim. (Photo by Lexi Webster Photography)

It is common knowledge that women earn 84% of the average worker. Less common knowledge? Trans women earn 60% of the average worker. Trans men and non-binary people come in at around 70%, while 16% of all trans people make less than $10,000 annually. 

E.C. Pizarro was lucky, and he knew it. He had a BFA in graphic design and had taught himself how to code. As a stealth trans man in a corporate job, he had access to a stable wage and good benefits. “People that do not have experiences in corporate America or with equitable employment don’t realize [these things] are privileges that a lot of people don’t have access to.” 

He wanted to give back and was gearing up to bring more volunteer work into his life by participating in a fraternity for trans men. When he went to a TransTech event and learned about the educational and career resources for trans people who face barriers to entering the workforce, he knew he had found his place. 

At the event he met, Angelica Ross. Yes, that Angelica Ross, of “Pose” and “American Horror Story.”

Before she was Candy, Ross was a self-taught coder. She went from posing for an adult website to doing its back-end coding to teaching her trans siblings how to succeed in tech. 

“Technology was the key to my freedom,” Ross said in an interview with The Plug. “Technology took me from being exploited on someone’s website to building my own websites and to building websites for other people and getting paid to do so.”

Pizarro was impressed and wanted to help. “I went up to Angelica and I was like ‘Hey, I’m a trans man. These are my skills. I’m down to volunteer and do any type of work—the one caveat is that I’m stealth. You can’t tell anybody that I’m trans.’”

For four years, Pizarro helped from mostly behind the scenes, sometimes getting side-eyed since people thought he was a cis man in trans spaces. “I was still stealth as the Director of Social Media and Communications for the National Trans Visibility March in 2019,” Pizarro says, chuckling a little.

But by that point, Ross — who headlined the 2019 march — was overextended trying to balance being a world-famous actress, advocate, and businesswoman. 

She needed someone to step in as executive director of TransTech and looked to the group of dedicated volunteers. Pizarro was elected by his peers to take the reins of the organization. 

This was a turning point for Pizarro. “I’m very passionate about tech and for me a small sacrifice of being open with my trans experience to liberate other trans people,” he said. “I felt like if that’s something I got to do, then I’m gonna do it.”

And he did it. The infrastructure Ross put together worked: with mentorship, education, community, and networking with trans-accepting employers, trans people were gaining financial security and independence. 

So, Pizarro focused on expanding TransTech as widely as possible. “We have grown exponentially over the last three years,” he says. “When I took over in 2021, we had about 800 members based in the United States. Now we support over 6,700 members across 50 countries.”

TransTech is filling a demonstrated need within specifically the trans community. New research from LGBT Tech found that 68% of transgender adults use the internet to find LGBTQ-friendly employment (compared to 38% of cisgender LGBTQ+ adults). More than 70% of all LGBTQ adults use the Internet to access educational content.

Accessibility is central to the TransTech programming. Despite the growth, everything remains free. “There’s no membership fee. All of our programming is free. All of the certifications and educational resources are free,” Pizarro says. 

They know the financial burden the trans community faces — 29% of trans adults live in poverty. “If we’re asking anyone to up-skill [for a cost] and these are the things they are going through, we are asking them to invest in their future versus their meal today.” 

Pizarro believes that accessibility is more than just making the training free. He wants the community to understand that tech work is something they are innately capable of doing. 

“TransTech was built on the foundation of nontraditional tech. It’s not always coding. It’s graphic design. It’s social media. It’s video editing. It’s anything that uses a piece of technology and nowadays almost everything uses a piece of technology,” says Pizarro.

He emphasizes to participants: “You’re in tech and you don’t even know it,” pointing out how many already utilize tech skills like marketing and monetization with their social media accounts.

Some people involved in the programming are nervous about entering the “tech world” because of headlines about tech layoffs. He makes sure to emphasize that unlike in some other jobs, tech companies often pay generous severance packages, which gives employees “breathing room.” Pizzaro explains that “once you have experience with one tech company, you can go someplace else and make a substantial amount of money as well.” 

While TransTech is designed for the gender-diverse community, the programming is open to everyone Pizarro explains. “We just ask that you don’t be transphobic.” (Or any of the other -phobics too, he says, listing them off.) He also emphasizes that this allows trans members who are not out to comfortably participate. 

Pizarro wants everyone to understand that they don’t just belong in tech, but they make tech better. “Tech is most profitable when you have diverse people building the tech and using the tech,” Pizarro says. “There is an intentional funding as well as support to diversity tech because they understand how that impacts the product.”

He also reminds participants that they have developed transferrable skills in every part of their lives. “I like to tell people if you can manage your life as a trans person in the United States or anywhere you can manage a project.”

Angelica Ross was a self-taught coder before she hit it big with ‘Pose.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Linus Berggren)
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