What happens when something as simple as a name change becomes a matter of survival for a trans woman? For Kendra Brill, that is her reality as she fights for her identity in her search to find redemption.
“Her story is one of civil rights.”
Brill’s story is one that starts in an all too familiar way for many of us in the transgender community. But for Kendra, a lifelong struggle to be herself turned to self-harm, time in prison and ultimately a quest for her truth that lead to a battle with a gatekeeping judge in Strasburg, Virginia. Her story is one of civil rights. The outcome does not only affect Brill’s ability to exist, but it also shines a light on the vast disconnect regarding how cisgender and transgender people are treated in the court system.
I spoke with Kendra Brill about her life and experiences leading up to today.
So let us start at the beginning. When did gender become an issue for you? Was it something that was always there?
Absolutely. I have a picture on my Facebook page of me holding a purse when I was two. I knew my whole life I was meant to be a woman. I always knew something was wrong. I hid it.
Where you born and raised in Strasburg?
No. My stepfather was in the Navy so I moved around a bit as a kid. Eventually I ended up living with my grandparents. They raised me through my teenage years and I have been living here for about twenty years. They were like my mom and dad.
What was childhood like for you?
Had I known then what I do now, I probably would have been like Jazz Jennings or a younger trans role model like we see out there today. The world was a different place in the 1980’s. I got by wearing my mother’s makeup when she was at work, hoping I could get all the mascara off my eyelashes before she got home. Then I went to live with my grandparents and they accepted me for who I was, but it was just easier at the time to be openly gay. In high school I came out as an androgynous gay male, but the desire to be me grew stronger and stronger over time.
“Before I knew it I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t want to feel.”
I know for myself and for many of our readers, we can relate when it comes to doing things to avoid dealing with our own internal conflict about gender. Looking for a way to escape it. Some of us turn to drugs or other forms of self-harm, while others channel it like Kristin Beck and become war heroes. For you it was self-harm through alcohol?
It was alcohol and the alcohol lead to other things. Before I knew it I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t want to feel. I was avoiding “her” because I was too afraid to take the plunge.
And that would end up leading to 4 DWI’s within a 10-year period?
Yes. I got my first one when I was 21 years old, then I got my second one when I was 27, my third one at 29 and my fourth at 31.
Now after your fourth DWI you are serving time in a corrections facility and it is there where you realize it is time to deal with your gender issues?
In reality I always knew who and what I was but denied it. There I was in prison. No one was coming to see me. The only contact I had with the outside was from letters my grandmother would send. I decided to finally deal with it and went to see the therapist in prison. I told him I thought I had what I knew as gender identity disorder at the time and I was eventually diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
You are at the corrections facility and you now come to terms with your true identity. You are on the road to recovery from alcohol and are beginning the journey of living an authentic life as you start to transition. What happened when you left prison?
I went in prison as Will and I came out as Kendra. The facility had me in an aftercare treatment program for my transition. I had a friend who was also transgender who helped me out with clothes and makeup before I went home. I began hormones. It was important to me that I went home as myself and that my family saw me for who I truly was.
A logical step in the process is a name change and this is where it all takes an unusual turn. So what exactly happened?
It was a disaster. My grandfather took me to the courthouse, gave me his credit card and said go in there and get your name changed. He was going to pay for my name change. I chose the name Kendra because his name was Kenneth. He was always the one who told me to be myself. He passed away about a year ago, but he was like my father.
“He said he was denying my name change because I had yet to go through gender confirmation surgery…”
So what turned the experience into a disaster?
The judge denied it. He said he was denying my name change because I had yet to go through gender confirmation surgery and because I was a felon.
I read the rejection letter and he claimed that because of your felony he wanted to avoid “any confusion as to your identity in our computer databases” and then he said to “try again after you have a sex change.” Is that what really happened?
Yes. Up until that point I hadn’t really thought about surgery, as I was fine with where I was currently in my journey. I was content with just the name change at the time, but he denied me that. Then my doctor even wrote a profound letter expressing her concerns over the harm caused by not allowing me to change my name and he denied her as well.
What did you do next?
Next I went to the DMV and I was at least able to change my gender marker. That was a big moment in my case, because now the state is officially acknowledging me as a female.
I just find it amazing that it was easier for you to change your gender marker than to have your name changed. For many of us it is the other way around. So do you think the judge’s ruling was politically motivated, or was it religious? Do you think he just does not understand what transgender is or that it is something worse than that?
I don’t want to speak for him. I don’t know what he thinks. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I want to think that he is a good person, but his decision has pretty much robbed me of two years of my life and has cost me a lot.
How did this affect your recovery from alcohol?
I went back. I had relapsed because of it. It was traumatic for me emotionally.
“I just want to live my truth.”
You finally figure out the root of all the years of self-abuse, you decide to face dysphoria and overcome alcoholism, but then you hit this brick wall with a judge, which in essence stops your recovery. It seems like the judge’s decision runs counter to the idea of “corrections,” does it not?
Yes. I was like why did I go through all this just to be denied my name change? Why can’t he just understand that this is imperative to my life? I wouldn’t have gone through all this in prison or have spent the last two years of my life going through this if it didn’t mean anything. I took it all out on myself. I just want to live my truth. I do not want to keep hurting myself. Right now I can’t even get a good job without having to out myself and explain why I legally have a male name. I am not able to move forward.
Do you think you would have gone through the same experience had you been a cisgender woman with the same felony record?
No. I don’t think I would have gone through the same thing if I were cisgender. I never heard of a cisgender woman being denied a name change because of a felony. What if she married a man she fell in love with and she wanted to take his last name? I never heard of that being denied.
So where are you at now with the process. Are you in the middle of an appeal process?
No, not officially. The last court date the judge left it up to the commonwealth attorneys because I am on probation. They will decide where they stand on it and the judge will take it under consideration when making his final determination. Hopefully he will sign off on it and finally after two years, I can be myself.
It is going to be the same judge who makes the decision, Judge Dennis L. Hupp?
Yes the same judge.
“I have so much to live for now. I have so much to be thankful for.”
And how are you doing today with the alcoholism?
My grandfather’s death really affected my life. It made me realize a lot and grow up. It made me stop fighting myself. I feel like he is looking out for me. I have struggled really hard to become the woman I am today and each day I get stronger and stronger. I am not out there doing the things I was doing. I have so much to live for now. I have so much to be thankful for.
Do you think in the end things will work out for you?
I think in the end the judge will say, “Let this woman be herself. Just let her be.” I have seen him in the courts now. He knows me. He has watched me come through his courtroom. If he could just grant my name change I will stay out of the courts and be out of his way for good. Hopefully I am at the end of this.
So you are hopeful for the future?
Yes. The whole process has been humiliating, but humiliation is part of the process of recovery. I am bitter about it, but I am forgiving. It has been an emotional roller coaster to have all these obstacles put in my way. In a sense I am still in prison, I am still locked up. I am still not free. I want to redeem myself and help others. Since I have stopped drinking, having the right hormones has helped my mind. I am balanced. I can finally be happy.
There are some who may say that Kendra Brill is felon and that she does not deserve to be granted her name change. The counter to that argument would be that cisgender women are not treated the same way in the court system. If Brill were a cisgender woman with the exact same record, our paths probably would have never crossed. Women get married and change their names all the time. If we denied every cisgender woman the right to change her name after marriage because she previously had a DWI, the alarms would be sounding. That is the problem.
“To deny her the ability to change her name would also be denying her ability to recover.”
The point of corrections is supposed to be to rehabilitate. As a country we often fail in that area. Brill decided to deal with her problems. She was able to get to the root of her self-abuse and start down the road to recovery. To deny her the ability to change her name would also be denying her ability to recover. It forces her to live as someone she is not while opening the door to further self-harm. I see it as a life or death situation.
Brill’s story matters to all transgender people because the outcome says whether we deserve equal rights or not. Should a person have to undergo gender reassignment surgery just to change their name? Does a judge have the right to assign gender to a name in the first place? As transgender people, do we have the same rights as our cisgender brothers and sisters? These are all questions that the outcome of Judge Hupp’s decision will impact. We will know that answer in the coming weeks and I for one will be pulling for Kendra.
I am happy to announce that Kendra Brill was finally granted her name change on October 11, 2016.