Last week, while on vacation in Ohio, I purchased a car in advance of my move back east.
… or at least that’s how simple it should have been. While it’s true that I did manage to purchase a car, doing so required putting up with heaping helpings of both sexual harassment and trans*phobia. The oldish man in charge of financing spent the entire form-filling process leering at, and talking to, my chest. It amounted to 45 minutes of zero eye contact.
Then, when I tried to make my down payment to the dealership, everything initially went fine. I called the bank from the dealership, requested a wire transfer from my checking account, and was told that should be put through that afternoon. A couple hours later, a second service rep called for some additional information to verify my identity. She mentioned there was a “discrepancy” in some of the information on my account — there were two names associated with my Social Security Number. I explained that, yes, I had legally changed my name several years prior. Because there were two names officially attached to my SSN, she explained, they needed me to fax my driver’s license to the bank. That seemed reasonable, so I agreed to do so. Less than five minutes after hanging up, the same service rep called back to say that, actually, I would also need to send a copy of my Social Security Card, and the official court order from my name change process, in order for USAA to process the wire transfer.
Let me be clear for a moment: by this time I had already correctly answered a number of identification questions, and had agreed to send my state-issued photo identification as further verification. I was also speaking with these reps on the same phone number that had existed on file with my account for 2-3 years. The only “red flag” was I’d legally changed my name, and correctly updated all of my documentation, well before ever opening an account with USAA. And because this situation was confusing to the service reps, I was being forced to verify my identity, in triplicate, in a way that would never be asked of another customer (perhaps one who’d changed their last name as the result of a marriage or divorce).
After thinking it over, and getting progressively angrier about over the space of a couple of hours, I decided that evening to forget the wire transfer process altogether. I could let the dealership know there was a problem, and bring them a certified check instead. I went to the USAA website, only to discover that my account had been completely blocked. I couldn’t log into the website, I couldn’t use my ATM card. When I called the customer service number to see what was going on, it was after regular business hours, and the after-hours rep could neither tell me why the block was placed, nor help me remove the block. I would have to call back the next day. I had done nothing wrong, yet I had zero access to any of the funds in my bank account, and no way to get it back.
In summary, because I legally changed my first name, USAA treated me like a criminal.
I can understand the need of a bank, especially one whose operations are largely internet-based to do its due diligence in maintaining the security and integrity of its depositors’ accounts. If I had originally created my account with USAA under my birth name and was now asking to withdraw money under my court-ordered name? I could understand having to provide that documentation. If I were a brand-new customer with the bank? I could understand having to provide that documentation. If it were standard, documented bank policy that wire transfers over a certain amount require heightened scrutiny, and that scrutiny applied equally to all customers? I could understand having to provide that documentation.
But none of those things were true. I had been a USAA customer for two or three years, opened the account under my court-ordered name, and had provided not only the official documentation for wire transfers listed by USAA on their website, but also a slew of additional information. The wire transfer was being sent within the US, care of a large and well-known bank, with the name of a large car dealership with a well-established online presence as the recipient. The people at the dealership ALLOWED ME TO DRIVE OFF THE LOT WITH THEIR CAR with zero money yet exchanged, and less information than USAA was requiring.
It took a total of six phone calls between myself, the second rep, and her manager to get USAA to complete the transfer, but not before being subjected to a lecture about how roommates and people with similar names sometimes try to take over other people’s accounts. (Later, the second rep would scold me that this was “for [my] own protection.”) USAA did finally agree to accept just my driver’s license before sending the transfer and unblocking my account, but it took a lot of anger-fueled determination on my part, as well as the social network afforded to me based on my whiteness and socioeconomic status, to make it happen.
So given that it all turned out okay in the end, why am I writing about this? To be sure, I am still completely enraged at the way USAA treated me personally. When USAA placed the block on the account, they did nothing to try to contact the rightful owner of the account (ME). The fact that they did not call, email, text, or otherwise use the official long-standing information in my profile, suggests they did not believe a security breach had happened, and instead were just engaging in harassment because they could.
Mostly, though, I’m writing about this because institutional discrimination and harassment like this happens routinely to trans* people and other marginalized communities, and yet is often invisible to people who are not a member of the affected community. It’s important to document these discriminatory acts, and tell others about them. I want anyone within range of my voice to know that society treats trans* people like fraudulent actors on a daily basis. In many states (including Ohio), a judge could have denied my legal name change simply because they didn’t like the idea of it. Banks can block my financial accounts without cause and require me to submit unreasonable amounts of documentation to regain proper access. And because trans* people lack adequate protections at state and federal levels, this discrimination and harassment is legal.
As a result of this experience, I am moving my funds to a local credit union and closing my USAA account as quickly as possible. It is ridiculously inconvenient for me to do this right now, given that I will be leaving San Francisco in less than a month’s time, but I refuse to let a company that has treated me so poorly to profit from my presence. If you are a current or future USAA customer, I’m asking you to consider whether this is a bank that deserves to profit from your deposits, and to either agitate for change or move your accounts elsewhere if you determine they do not. If you are not a USAA customer, I would urge you to inquire as to how your bank does business, and whether its policies are applied fairly to all customers, and to agitate for change or move your accounts elsewhere if you determine they do not.