Ryan Brazell

Because I legally changed my first name, USAA treated me like a criminal.

[Trigger warning: sexual harassment, trans*phobia.]

USAA-header

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.

4 comments for “Because I legally changed my first name, USAA treated me like a criminal.

  1. June 15, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    If you ever run for a political office, you got my vote!

    • June 15, 2013 at 11:24 pm

      LOL! Thanks, Sean :) Something tells me that wouldn’t be a viable career path for me at this point …

  2. Kelly
    February 26, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    A judge is not supposed to deny a name change because he doesn’t like the name. The only reason they’re supposed to deny one is if it appears you’re doing it for fraudulent reasons, like to escape a criminal history or hide debt. In fact, if a judge denies a name change because it’s not “gender appropriate” that could set off a legal storm that would be felt well beyond the trans* community (legally defining a “male” or “female” name could affect anyone down to what they can name a baby). What I recommend is if you live in a state that is less than friendly to trans* people simply state your reason as something like “it better fits my personality” or “I’d like to legally assume the name I’m known by to friends” and don’t mention that you’re changing gender; as long as you don’t have issues like those mentioned above that would mean a legitimate reason to deny your name change request, you should be smooth sailing afterwards. After all, there have been name changes petitioned and approved involving names MUCH more bizarre than simply one more common for the opposite gender.

    • February 26, 2014 at 10:55 pm

      Judges are not supposed to deny name changes for reasons other than fraud, but that doesn’t change the fact that they could. The problem is that no judge would ever admit they are denying a name change “because it’s not gender appropriate.” They would simply find a more legally palatable reasoning that would stand up more easily to scrutiny.

      Even if a judge were to be honest, “legal storms” don’t happen accidentally or on their own. Have you taken a look at the people who are winning the same-sex marriage court decisions lately? They are primarily white, cisgender, well-educated, middle or upper-class gay men and lesbian. Those are the people that “Gay Inc” is willing to support in court, while the trans* community’s most pressing issues are deprioritized or just plain ignored.

      I understand that you are trying to suggest pragmatic approaches to working within the current system, but “don’t mention that you’re changing gender” is not acceptable. Name change requests shouldn’t require going in front of a judge in the first place (after all, folks getting married don’t have, and a reason should not have to be given. If a person is asked for a reason (or chooses to give one), they should not have to lie.

      Lastly, there is no such thing as “smooth sailing” after a trans* person changes their name. Every time we apply for a job that requires a background check, or move to a new state and apply for a driver’s license, or even try withdraw our own money from our own long-standing accounts, we will have to face the possibility that we’ll be outed, treated with suspicion, made to jump through extra hoops, denied access, and otherwise discriminated against.

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