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In the month since Philadelphia mandated COVID vaccination for indoor dining and drinking at restaurants and bars, some patrons have run into an unforeseen problem. If you’ve changed your name recently, you could find yourself with an ID that doesn’t match your vax card.

Though it seems a clerical issue, mismatched names can pose difficulty for restaurant staff, and be potentially dangerous for trans people, who may have to out themselves to get in.

“You don’t want to offend anybody,” said Erin Wallace, owner of the South Philly bar Devil’s Den. To comply with the law, she and her staff compare names as a step toward avoiding fake vaccination records. “But what if I ID somebody who’s transitioning? It’s opened up a lot of questions.”

If trans people try to explain the dissonance to the person checking at the door, in a public place, it can put them at risk of discrimination or transphobia.

“I’m not against being vaccinated, I’m not against showing the card, I’m not against keeping other people safe,” said Charlie Meyers, a trans artist living in West Philly. “But it puts me in the position to have to out myself, and it’s just not a comfortable process for me.”

Why not change the name on the legal ID? In Pennsylvania, the process is notoriously difficult.

There’s a new effort underway at the state level to simplify the process. The draft legislation, due to be introduced soon, would also remove gender markers from new Pa. birth certificates.

‘No easy answer’ when checking at the door

Meyers said he started the cumbersome name change process in early 2020, but the pandemic shut down the courts. Then his chronic illness flared up, and he was too sick to get back to it.

After the vax card mandate went into effect at all Philly bars and restaurants last month, Meyers said he visited a Starbucks in his neighborhood to get some work done. His vaccine card has his birth name (as he prefers to call it), which is conventionally feminine, and Meyers is a masculine-presenting person. The coffee shop employees asked for extra ID.

“I don’t even think that the people asking these questions at the cafe are transphobic. I think they’re genuinely confused,” Meyers said. “But it puts trans people in position to just hope that there’s like a generosity of spirit everywhere they go, which is not our reality.”

Harassment and violence are a very real threat for trans people. The Human Rights Campaign recorded at least 51 trans or gender-nonconforming people who were killed in 2021 — marking the most violent year for LGBTQ people since 2013. These statistics are usually dominated by a majority of Black and Latinx trans people.

In Philly, fewer than 10 people have called the Health Department to request a name change on their vaccine card, according to city spokesperson Matthew Rankin, who said the city hasn’t issued specific guidance on how restaurants should handle this issue.

“Because of the difficulty with matching legal IDs and preferred names, there is no easy answer,” Rankin said. “People in this situation may need to explain why the two documents don’t match.”

Wallace, the owner of Devil’s Den, said her staff recently welcomed a woman whose last name was different on her vaccine card and her driver’s license. She told them she’d recently gotten married. The staff decided to take her word for it and let her in. There have also been plenty of fake vax cards where names totally don’t match up, Wallace said.

“It would be great if the city came up with rules if you are transitioning or you got married, and your vax card has a different name, this is how you deal with it,” she suggested. “Because it shouldn’t rely on restaurants to figure out how to deal with it.”

Credit: Jeff Chiu / AP Photo

Change your name without $1,000 in court fees?

Ram Krishnan, owner of Center City bars Writer’s Block Rehab and Cockatoo, said because he knows he has many trans customers, he makes sure it’s always him or his husband at the door.

If someone’s ID and vax card don’t match, he’ll ask for another form of ID. He’s flexible with what he’ll accept — a bill, a piece of mail, a medical record. One time a customer showed name change paperwork on their phone.

“The trans community goes through this,” Krishnan said. “Part of what we’re noticing is that people just don’t go out if they have a problem, because they’re like, I don’t want to deal with somebody mistreating me.”

An attempt to smooth this out long term is percolating in Harrisburg.

Two state lawmakers are planning this spring to introduce a bill that would change Pennsylvania’s name change process from a judicial one to an administrative one. People would still have to pass a background check. But instead of having to get a lawyer, pay up to $1,000 in court fees, and appear before a judge, an applicant could simply go to a place like the DMV or the state police.

The legislative package includes a bunch of proposed changes:

  • Remove the sex designation from new PA birth certificates
  • Eliminate the requirement that people publish their name change, and automatically seal the records
  • Staff a dedicated point of contact for name changes who publishes info on the process
  • Eliminate the two-year waiting period for people with felony convictions
  • Create new grants to help trans people navigate the process

“It’s a problem with transgender individuals all the time,” said Allegheny County state Rep. Dan Frankel, who is co-sponsoring this legislation and founded the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. “And I want to provide a supportive, efficient system for them to deal with.”

Bills that support LGBTQ people often languish in Pennsylvania’s legislature, however. Legislators have been trying and failing to pass the same LGBTQ hate crime protections for almost five years.

In the meantime, city officials say Philadelphians can request a name change on their vaccine card by calling the Health Department’s COVID hotline: 215-685-5488.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...