For transgender and nonbinary people, paying with a plastic card bearing a name that conflicts with their appearance can be stressful. The disconnect may turn a simple shopping trip into a minefield.
But soon, cards issued by some banks on the Mastercard network will let customers use their chosen names on payment cards — even if they have not changed their legal names.
Mastercard said this month that BMO Harris Bank in December would become the first institution to offer debit and ATM cards under the network's True Name initiative.
The bank, based in Chicago, has 500 branches in eight states and opens accounts nationally through call centers and online. BMO Harris is the 24th largest bank in the United States by assets, according to the Federal Reserve.
The initiative reflects growing awareness of the needs of transgender and nonbinary people. Mastercard doesn't want customers to feel insecure or worried about potential discrimination when using its cards, said Cheryl Guerin, executive vice president for marketing and communications at the company, which announced plans for the feature in June.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and nonbinary people may encounter discrimination in the financial world. A study by the University of Iowa, for instance, found that lenders are less likely to approve mortgages for same-sex couples.
"We're focused on inclusion," Guerin said. "If any community has a pain point, we want to do something about it."
People will apply for card accounts using their legal name, she said, since banks are obligated to collect that information to verify the customer's identity and, in the case of credit cards, to report the application to credit bureaus. But there is no requirement, she said, that the name on the card be the holder's legal name. So the card-issuing banks will adjust their application processes to allow customers to request a card with their preferred name. Their legal name remains on the account, "in the background," she said.
Some banks already allow wiggle room on names printed on credit and debit cards. Chase, for instance, allows flexibility as long as the name on the card is a "reasonable" derivation of the legal name. But printing an entirely new name, and one that is commonly associated with a different gender, is new.
BMO Harris decided to participate after considering research showing that many transgender consumers suffer anxiety and even harassment when using identification cards with names that don't match their appearance, said Erminia Johannson, the bank's group head for North American personal and United States business banking.
"They are not comfortable," said Johannson, who goes by Ernie, "and we have an obligation to deal with that."
A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, a nonprofit advocacy and education group, found that a third of transgender people reported suffering harassment or denial of service after showing identification with a name or gender that didn't match their appearance. The center says the survey was the largest to look at the experience of transgender people in the United States.
About 1.4 million adults in the country identify as transgender, meaning they identify as a gender that differs from the one on their birth certificate. Nonbinary people identify as neither male nor female.
Dawn Ennis, a journalist and podcast host who is a transgender woman, said that everyday interactions can be fraught for transgender people and that having a card with their chosen name can help.
She recalled that soon after she began presenting herself as a woman, a hotel clerk questioned her credit card because it bore the name Don. After she explained that the card reflected her former name because she is transgender, the somewhat flustered clerk accepted the card. The situation was embarrassing, she said. "You feel like your personal life is on display."
Ennis later had her name changed legally, but it's not easy for everyone to do that because it typically requires a court order and can be expensive.
The cost is a significant barrier, said Gillian Branstetter, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Transgender Equality. More than a third of transgender people who have not changed their legal name said it was because they could not afford it, according to the center's survey.
About half those who had gone through a legal name change said the cost was between $100 and $250, but in some cases was $1,000 or more, the survey found. That is steep, Branstetter said, for a group that tends to have lower incomes for a variety of reasons, including higher rates of unemployment and job and housing discrimination. About a third of the survey's participants who had a job reported being fired, denied a promotion or being otherwise mistreated in the workplace because of their gender expression.
How will customers get their chosen name on their cards?
Details will vary by bank. BMO Harris said it was beginning with just debit cards and would decide on the next steps after assessing how the program was working. Current customers can visit a branch or contact a call center to request a change. They don't have to say they are transgender or give a reason, Johannson said.
Everyone applying for a new checking account by visiting a branch or using a call center will be asked what first name should appear on the debit or ATM card before it is printed. The choice does not apply to the last name, a bank spokeswoman said.
Bank staff members have been given guidelines to identify potential signs of fraud, the bank said, without providing details.
The bank has, however, set some limits on the names that may be chosen. The fine print on its website states that the "true" name on the card can't include numbers or special characters and that customers should avoid using "fictitious, humorous or profane" names.
Ann Carrns writes for the New York Times.