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LOCKPORT – A Niagara Falls resident with disabling health problems who is hoping for a sex change operation was able to win a name change last month without having to pay a court filing fee.

“I knew from 5 or 6 years old who I was,” Mikell Davianna Puglisi, who was born Michael David Puglisi, said in an interview Monday.

“I grew up in an Italian Catholic family, so I hid it until I was about 30.”

Puglisi enlisted the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund of New York City to persuade the Niagara County Attorney’s Office to pay the $210 fee, something the county had at first resisted.

Puglisi, who according to court papers receives $752 a month in welfare benefits, was denied poor person relief for a name change petition in December.

Puglisi said she is disabled as a result of the lupus she’s had since age 15, along with resulting kidney failure, rheumatoid arthritis and bone necrosis.

The transgender legal group took the case for free and referred her to Buffalo attorney Lynette Nogueras-Trummer of the Nixon Peabody law firm.

By early March, the county had agreed to a consent order dropping its objections to paying the $210 filing fee, and State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III granted the name change April 14.

That was 3½ months after Boniello had refused to waive the filing fee, after Assistant County Attorney Brian D. Seaman filed an objection.

Seaman said the objection to poor person relief in name change cases has long been standard operating procedure for the county. “It was nothing to do with this particular case,” he said.

Assistant County Attorney John S. Sansone, who handled the consent order, said the county has to pay the filing fee to the court system when relief is granted, so it examines the cases closely.

State law says such relief is to be considered by the court in which an action is triable. County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said the county doesn’t consider a name change a triable action. The defense fund argued against that interpretation.

“That would categorically deny poor person relief for name changes,” said Noah Lewis, an attorney for the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. He said that making Puglisi continue to use a man’s name would be a First Amendment violation.

“The most important step for a transgender person is to have their legal identity match their physical identity,” Lewis said.

Puglisi, 46, was married for six years and has a son, now 9. They recently moved from the Balmer Road trailer park outside Youngstown to Niagara Falls, where they continue to live with Puglisi’s ex-wife, who filed for divorce in 2009 after six years of marriage.

“When I met my wife, I was living as a woman,” Puglisi said. “After two years, we had a child, and I didn’t want to confuse him, so I lived as a man for three years.”

That started when the boy was 3 years old, Puglisi said. When the boy was 6, Puglisi went back to female dress.

“My therapist told me times have changed and children understand,” Puglisi said, adding that the boy “is very proud of me. He calls me Mama and his mother he calls Mommy.”

According to a December court filing, Puglisi sought a name change now because “I currently live as a woman and do not want to cause any embarrassment on my part or others.’”

That’s exactly what happened last summer, when Puglisi’s car was pulled over in Newfane by Niagara County sheriff’s deputies because the car had a burned-out taillight.

Puglisi handed over her driver’s license, which had a male name and photo, the deputy said, “No, I need your license, not your husband’s.” When Puglisi tried to explain why she looked female, two other patrol cars came to the scene.

“They all had a good chuckle and took another 30 or 40 minutes to write me a ticket,” Puglisi said, adding that the infraction was dismissed.

On another occasion, Puglisi said in a court affidavit, she had a hard time obtaining a new Medicaid card because of her female appearance.

Lewis said Medicaid restrictions are holding up the sex-change operation.

“She would certainly like to have the surgery, but it’s not covered by her insurance,” Lewis said. “New York has an explicit exclusion for surgery and hormone therapy for transgender people.”

Puglisi said she grew breasts with hormone therapy that Independent Health paid for at first, but the coverage later was withdrawn.

“I’ve had to deal with a lot of ignorance, people not understanding,” she said.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com