Transgender rights: Los Angeles families complain of insensitive treatment during court hearings

The Liljestrand family walked into the courthouse confident — if a bit nervous.

They’d come to get their eldest child’s name legally changed to Melissa Rose and her gender designation switched from male to female.

When it was finally their turn to be heard, the judge cleared the courtroom. Before long, he turned to the 14-year-old and asked how she knew she was a girl.

“Convince me,” the judge said, according to the family.

They’d expected the May hearing to be quick and simple. Instead, Melissa, and her parents Eric Liljestrand and Gwen Everman, said they left Stanley Mosk Courthouse frustrated and traumatized. The judge’s questions, they said, seemed skeptical — even critical — of Melissa’s transition.

“The whole experience just drained my faith in the legal system,” Eric Liljestrand said.

While battles over workplace discrimination and access to public accommodations, such as restrooms, have drawn intense public scrutiny, one facet of transgender rights — treatment inside the courtroom — is less well documented. Families have complained that efforts to change names and gender designations were met with callousness and antiquated stereotypes. They hope that raising the profile of the issue will lead to better training of judges.

In Los Angeles County, more than 4,500 people filed petitions for name changes last year, said Kelly Vail, a Superior Court spokeswoman. No records are kept on how many of the filings also included a petition to change an individual’s gender designation, Vail said.

And it’s difficult to know the scope of complaints alleging insensitive behavior during such hearings across California. The director of the Commission on Judicial Performance, the state agency that disciplines judges, declined to confirm or deny if such complaints had been lodged.

Vail said the California Judicial Council — the policymaking arm of state courts — provides training on “fairness and judicial demeanor generally, and with specific regard to gender preferences and transgender issues.” Beyond that, she said, the ethics program judges are expected to take every three years covers the topic, as does orientation training for new judges.

A retired L.A. County judge, Reva G. Goetz, said that though it’s critical to be sensitive and discreet on the bench, judges often must ask probing — even uncomfortable — questions before making a ruling, especially in cases involving minors.

The Liljestrand family alleges that Superior Court Judge Edward Moreton crossed the line during Melissa’s hearing, repeatedly asking her how she knew she was a girl and how she could be sure she wouldn’t change her mind.

Everman complained to the Commission on Judicial Performance about what she characterized as “a traumatic experience.” The commission’s director, Victoria B. Henley, said the agency doesn’t comment on whether a complaint has been lodged against a judge.

According to the family, the judge told Melissa, now 15, that she looked and sounded like a boy, mentioning that she was wearing boy’s clothes. Melissa, dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt and Doc Martens, shot back: “Clothing doesn’t have a gender.”

Moreton, who presides over all name and gender marker hearings in the downtown courthouse, said it would be inappropriate to comment about the case. There is no transcript from the hearing and this account relies on an interview with the Liljestrand family and their written complaint.

Initially, the judge’s questions — what name and pronoun should he use? — seemed to suggest he was sensitive to and aware of the transgender community. But then came the question about how she knew she was a girl. It seemed like such a strange, unanswerable request, Melissa’s father remembered thinking — like asking someone to convince you that they’re right-handed.

At one point, Melissa began crying and was granted a brief recess. Sobbing, she put her hands over her face and fainted, hitting her head on the jury box as she crumpled to the ground. Her parents panicked, but she was determined to continue.

After the session resumed, the judge asked if a letter to the court saying Melissa had undergone “clinically appropriate treatment” was from a “real doctor,” Everman said.

Moreton agreed to sign the papers, but first flapped them in the air, Liljestrand said.

“Just a piece of paper,” he recalled the judge saying. “It does not make you a woman… Now you’re just going to have a lot more problems than other people.”

“It was so inappropriate and mean-spirited,” Liljestrand said.

To state Sen.Toni Atkins, the judge’s questions highlight a broader societal problem.

“Frankly, trans people and nonbinary folks have always been over-scrutinized and had to prove their genders in ways others are not forced to,” said Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who introduced legislation signed into law recently by Gov. Jerry Brown that eases restrictions on changing state identification documents.

Under current California law, individuals are required to obtain a doctor’s note to change the gender marker on their birth certificate.

But getting a name change — or, in Melissa’s case, both a name and gender marker change — requires a court order. Judges often sign the order outright but sometimes require minors to appear for a hearing.

The new law, which will begin rolling out late next year, eliminates the need to appear in court for an individual to change their name to conform to their gender identity, so long as there is no proof the person is seeking to escape debt or a warrant. It also creates a nonbinary gender designation — neither exclusively male nor female — for official state documents. And it strikes the requirement that a doctor affirm that a patient has undergone treatment for a gender transition.

Jonathan Keller, president of the California Family Council, a Fresno-based religious liberties group that opposed the legislation, said eliminating the requirement of a doctor's note will inevitably lead to abuse.

“We have more requirements on people who want to drive without correctable lenses,” he said. “We don’t just take people’s word...This opens Pandora’s Box.”

In some states, gender-reassignment surgery is required for name and gender marker changes, while others refuse to issue new birth certificates with a gender change, said Shawn Thomas Meerkamper, a staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center.

In 2015, a Missouri judge refused to let a transgender teenager change his name from Natalie to Nathan unless the teenager submitted to a mental examination. A year later, a Georgia judge refused to grant name-change requests from two transgender people, saying it would “confuse and mislead” the public and amount to “a type of fraud.” Both rulings were appealed and ultimately overturned.

A survey of more than 27,000 transgender people by the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2015 found that a quarter of respondents said they’d been verbally harassed after showing an ID with a name or gender marker not matching their gender presentation and 9% said they were asked to leave a location.

After posting about the incident to a Facebook group for parents of transgender children, Everman said she received a message from a woman saying her son had a similar experience with Judge Mark Borenstein, who handled such hearings prior to Moreton.

The second mother — who asked to remain anonymous to protect the identity of her 11-year-old son — said that after the election of President Trump, she became worried about obtaining a passport that reflected her son’s name and gender designation.

On the day of the court hearing, her son wore a special tie that he’d learned to knot for the occasion. In the judge’s chambers, the mother said, Borenstein launched into a long story about his own son, who as a child had played with dolls and liked to wear T-shirts on his head, pretending it was long hair.

According to the mother, the judge also told the young boy he’d previously approved name changes for transgender individuals who had later changed their minds. Ultimately, the judge granted the family’s request.

Borenstein declined to comment, but Fred Bennett, counsel for the Superior Court, said the judge couldn’t discuss the case publicly, since it involved a minor.

The boy’s mother said he left the courthouse embarrassed.

“He kept saying, ‘I felt like he wanted me to apologize to him for being a boy,’” she said, adding that she has also filed a complaint with the judicial commission.

After the hearing that day, she said, her son went home, tore off his tie and slept.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber

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