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Guest Opinion: The price of banking

by Charlie Hunts

Charlie Hunts. Photo: Courtesy Charlie Hunts
Charlie Hunts. Photo: Courtesy Charlie Hunts  

What if using a credit card meant being deadnamed every time that you pulled it out. Due to defunct security practices at traditional banks, for most of the trans community that's reality.

If you ask yourself what money means to you, I bet you'd say freedom, access, and opportunity. Unfortunately, if you're trans, safety is a part of that mix as well. Nearly every trans and nonbinary person acutely knows the fear of anticipating the other party's response to a perceived mismatch between the name on their credit card and the way that person is read.

I'll never forget the first time I heard a cashier call me by my true name. They were a barista at a Washington, D.C. coffee shop. When I began living publicly as a transgender man, I was embarrassed whenever visiting shops that pulled customer names from their cards. The otherwise mundane experience of waiting for my oat milk latte made me feel exposed, humiliated, and invalidated when deadnamed by a piece of plastic that had not been updated due to bureaucratic red tape. So when I heard "Oat milk latte for Charlie!" my heart sang.

My transition was and is a period of conflicting emotions ranging from happiness, anxiety, and relief to determination. While navigating my journey, one of the greatest joys has been being acknowledged for the person I am. The trouble with acknowledgment is that it usually comes from other people — think family, friends, even baristas. Beyond being truly seen by others, I have had to also ask for validation from authoritative strangers like doctors, judges, psychiatrists, and a thousand companies' policies.

According to a joint study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, 41% of trans folks live without a driver's license/state ID that matches their gender identity and true names.* It is common for the process of legal transitioning to cost thousands of dollars. For a community that is already economically vulnerable and grappling with massive health care costs, and given the social and emotional burden that accompanies legally transitioning, the financial hit is especially devastating.

After a year of navigating the health care and legal system to become Charlie Hunts, I spent another four years working to change all of my accounts to reflect my true name. The last places I updated were my bank accounts because of the amount of documentation and personal lobbying necessary to meet the companies' policies. Changing my name legally was easier than changing my name financially.

When I first called my traditional bank to change my first name, the representative on the other end heard my deep voice and thought I was trying to defraud the account holder ... who was me. I learned quickly that to make progress, I had to start speaking in a high-pitched voice when I called, which made me feel like an actual fraudster. And I'm not alone. Seventy-one percent of trans people have attempted to avoid discrimination by hiding their gender or gender transition. I was mentally exhausted by the gender gymnastics I had to perform and making very little progress at that. It got so bad that I even had my wife pretend she was me on the phone. Because of antiquated and biased "security" measures, I had to resort to recruiting others to impersonate me.

Even banks with the most lenient policies will greet a trans person by their chosen first name in some communications, but their underlying protocols for debit cards, credit cards, mobile apps, support tools, and credit applications are all built around birth names and cisgender definitions. If you call in, you're going to get deadnamed to verify you're you. But don't worry, there's no identity verification process to get their free branded products at Pride parades.

I had always chalked up my negative experience with banks as a necessary hurdle of transitioning until I joined the online-only nonbank financial institution ONE. Traditional banks will tell you that, for security reasons, they can't let trans folks change their first names without matching their government-issued ID. Changing your first name with a bank doesn't need to be daunting or exhausting. The security of your account is rooted in verifying your identity across a number of personal identifiers, which may include your Social Security number, date of birth, full name, address, and phone. Theft of assets via an imposter changing your first name should not be the bank's only or primary way of detecting when something's not right.

Your name is important for financial and government institutions, but the underlying Know Your Customer (KYC) compliance regulations that they use to protect against identity theft have inherent biases.

Most policymakers should be aware of those discriminatory prejudices but don't have the support (or pressure) to adjust their standards. That's where your bank should come in.

But while fancy user improvements in tech are great, banks need to make space for LGBTQ+ customers to build emergency savings, access affordable credit, share money in non-heteronormative family structures, and budget for the future.

I'm not a fraud expert; I am a marketer of trans experience who stumbled into fintech and found an amazing team at ONE who figured out a way to be inclusive using the tools we already had and at no cost to the company outside of our time.

ONE's My Name initiative is the first account to have your chosen name reflected on your card, your account, your documents, shared accounts with others (chosen family, family by birth, or even your roommates), even when you need a line of credit. We don't collect your gender, and consciously work to never assume gender by always addressing customers with gender-neutral terms, including if our support team needs to discuss customer needs among each other.

We're continuously working to improve the program, for example, by integrating your chosen name during the application process so you enter as your true self from the get.

By enabling trans folks to change their first name on their account, including providing access to credit without requiring matching legal documentation, we can expand economic opportunity and safety for trans and nonbinary customers.

Changing your first name on your bank account may seem like a small step, but it cascades into a rainbow of opportunities for our community. ONE is building something pretty special. Let's make real progress towards legal change. No deadnaming at the coffee shop required.

Charlie Hunts is the senior manager of brand marketing at the ONE, which is based in Sacramento and partners with Coastal Community Bank, where he oversees a brand reinventing how people save, spend, share, and borrow money so they can stress less and focus on what matters most. At home, Hunts is the director of vibes and caffeination. Hunts holds an MBA from Santa Clara University. For more information on ONE, visit www.joinone.today/MyName.

* Footnote: Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, JD Justin Tanis, and D. Min. "Transgender Discrimination Survey." Washington, D.C. (2011).



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