What’s in a name?

The team at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project got some news to be thankful for just before Thanksgiving last week: judges in New York State can no longer bar people from legally changing their names to traditionally “masculine” or “feminine” names simply because of the possibility of “confusion.”

It may come as a surprise to many of you that this is even an issue, but the Sylvia Rivera Law Project has been helping trans people in New York State change their names for over six years now, and believe me, name change petitions get denied for all sorts of spurious reasons. (Incidentally, I’ve been part of the collective that runs SRLP for almost as long.)

Another fact you may not be familiar with: in the United States, it’s one of your rights to change your name, enshrined in the Civil Rights Code of New York and many other states. I’d suggest that you all exercise this right early and often, but it could get to be a bureaucratic pain in the neck very rapidly.

This case, which was heard by the New York Supreme Court and was then reversed at appeals, upheld that right and pointed out that this right can’t be abridged for any reason save fraud, misrepresentation, or interference with the rights of others. And no, changing your name to a more traditionally “masculine” or “feminine” name doesn’t involve any of the above.

We’ve seen far too many judges react in a knee-jerk way to granting someone a legal name of the “other” gender. It’s not hard to imagine the gears turning in judicial brains: “What does this all mean? Surely this can’t be right!” Actually, a name is just a name, and as long as you aren’t trying to escape from debtors, or impersonate someone else to steal their credit card, you can change it to whatever you want. And that’s all it means. Some judges have asked for medical evidence, like a letter from a doctor or a psychiatrist, to prove that trans people’s name changes are for a “valid reason.” (I’ll give you one guess what the most common and traditional “valid reason” for changing your name is, one that’s never challenged.) But again — you don’t need a reason to change your name. You don’t need a doctor’s letter. It’s your choice what name to use, officially.

Of course, trans people usually have a host of good reasons to change names. Imagine that you’ve been using one name, but all of your official documents still say something else — your driver’s license, your social security card, your green card, your health insurance. When you get into school or are hired at a job, you end up having to put down your legal name, or explain the discrepancy to someone. So far, this isn’t too different from what many people with nicknames go through.

Now imagine that upon explaining or handing in a form, the bureaucrat on the other end looks at you with confusion or horror, and starts to stammer uncomfortably. Imagine that you can’t just get away with saying “Oh… but I prefer to go by Julie” on the first day of class without a bunch of snickering, whispering, or gossip. Imagine that you have teachers or employers who refuse to use any name but your “official, real one” when they read it off the attendance roll or set up your e-mail address. Imagine that this affects what kind of health care you get, or whether you’re hired at all — this was exactly how Izza Lopez was fired in Texas.

I think you get the picture. If you want to imagine some more, try imagining yourself in even worse circumstances, or even more abusive institutions: you’re being deported, or you wind up in jail. A legal name can be an incredibly important tool of validation, even though it’s never been held to “prove” what gender you are. It means people really ought to call you by that name, so says the law of the land. Of course it would be better if we could all just be polite about it and use everyone’s name of chioce — but you can’t trust institutions to behave well, especially when bureaucrats and people in charge nervous get freaked out by trans people.

The only blemish on an otherwise great unanimous decision was that the judge writing the opinion insisted that Ms. Golden’s name change include a clause declaring that it’s not evidence of a gender change. This is a little bit silly, because changing your name has never been evidence of a legal change of gender, nor would we want it to be. How would that even work? There’s a “gendered name” threshold that you pass over where if a woman changes her name from Christina to Chris it doesn’t trigger, but if she changes it to Christopher suddenly her gender is legally male? No — honestly, we should all be able to change our names to whatever we want, independently of our gender. Names don’t inherently have gender in them, and many have a tendency to switch over history. Pop Quiz #2: is Taylor a boy’s name or a girl’s name?

This part of the opinion is some kind of paranoid safeguard against perceived gender transgression, even though it doesn’t take TOO much in New York State to have your gender changed on your driver’s license as well as your name. It’s also a requirement that Ms. Golden’s name change look different from everyone else’s. It’s pretty annoying, but hopefully this part of the decision won’t be carried on in practice.

It’s a small victory in some ways — it protects a right that’s already written into law, “even for those trans people.” Many trans people have been able to change names without much fuss at all, but this additional decision makes the matter even more clear. Trans people whose name changes get scrutinized — because they’re immigrants and have to prove status, or because they have an arrest record and have to prove they’re not up to no good, or because they’re poor and are asking the court to waive the high fees — have been much more likely to encounter these barriers and denials. Hopefully that will be a thing of the past around New York State, which will allow our attorneys at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project more breathing room to focus on other pressing problems facing low-income trans communities of color in this state. Hopefully this right — and so many other rights that the courts become strangely uncertain of when applied to certain groups of people — will be clearly protected across the land.

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27 comments for “What’s in a name?

  1. E
    December 4, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Hooray for the SRLP! Thanks for the update. Hopefully this makes things at least a little bit easier and more consistent.

    The “wait stop this isn’t a gender change” clause is ridiculous–was anyone actually confused about that? Though, funny thought…. A friend of mine who recently changed her name as part of getting all her gender documentation ducks in a row ironically had a birth name that at the time was common for boys, but nowadays is much more popular for girls–if only names were that powerful, shifts in naming trends would have gotten the legal gender change out of the way for her, no surgeon’s letter required!

    (oh, and I think you meant “thing of the past,” not “thing of the best” in your last paragraph)

  2. December 4, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    Great news. It may be a narrow issue, but it’s a big win, and it’s a big issue for the folks it affects.

  3. Amanda in the South Bay
    December 4, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    It boggles my mind that the courts would have trouble granting legal name changes. Granted, I did get mine changed in Santa Cruz County, CA, so its not as if I was expecting problems. I guess this area really is a bubble.

  4. Froth
    December 4, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Imagine that you can’t just get away with saying “Oh… but I prefer to go by Julie” on the first day of class without a bunch of snickering, whispering, or gossip. Imagine that you have teachers or employers who refuse to use any name but your “official, real one” when they read it off the attendance roll or set up your e-mail address.

    Trust me, you get this with nicknames too. At least, when your nickname bears no relation to your legal name and isn’t something most people think of as a name, you do.
    I realise this isn’t in any way the same as what trans people go through in the rest of their lives. But I do know what it’s like to be slapped in the face with your legal name, just because someone thinks that ‘The law calls you X’ means ‘I have a right to call you X’.

  5. anon
    December 4, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    Vaguely related–racism comes into name-changing as well. My cousin is 100% Peruvian Indian. His stepfather is my uncle, who is white. His parents never got around to changing my cousin’s “ethnic” last name to his “white” last name. Most of his teachers in school understood the situation and were willing to call him Mr, “white last name”.

    One teacher, though, snidely pointed he wasn’t REALLY part of “white last name” family, and insisted on using his birth name (and mispronouncing it) as a way to teach him “who he really was”.

    Once more, intersection of race and gender as tools of oppression…

  6. December 4, 2008 at 6:41 pm

    I had no idea there could be such a legal struggle involved in simply changing your name if the name is going from “traditionally” masculine to “traditionally” feminine or vice versa. How ridiculous. I’ve known completely cisgendered women and girls with given names like Bobbi, Freddie, and Ryan. Something tells me the courts wouldn’t have a problem with them…

  7. December 4, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    And just for a minute–can we imagine the uproar if, when people filed to change their name after a straight, cissexual marriage–they had to present a letter from a doctor certifying that they’d been in therapy for a year about it, that specialist psychologist types had observed them to make sure they weren’t “crazy” or acting out, and that the decision they were making was approved–that their marriage was probably a good idea, with family approval, and wasn’t ever ever ever going to to break up, and was “healthy”, and didn’t have any indication of “questionable” choices or family history of health problems or…

  8. older
    December 4, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    Wasn’t the president-elect’s mother’s first name “Stanley”?

  9. steve
    December 4, 2008 at 7:56 pm


    Will this help with men wishing to take their wives last name?

    How do you feel about men taking their wives Last (maiden) Name?

  10. December 4, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    I don’t think it’s related to this case, steve. There’s another case that is relevant though: Michael Bijon née Buday‘s sex discrimination case in California.

    How do I feel about it? If a couple wants to do that, fine with me, sure? Not sure what else there is to say. It’s their right and I don’t see why not. Are you asking like “is that an awesome rebellious convention-buking thing or a silly thing?” Neither? Maybe a little of the former? Obviously it’s a little silly that they made it so hard and expensive in California for Mr. Bijon to change his name when it’s super-simple to do the more commonplace traditional thing.

    Good point about the intersection with other kinds of “illegitimate” names, anon.

  11. evil_fizz
    December 4, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    I went to high school with a woman named Kyle (the name her parents gave her at birth) who spent a tremendous amount of her time explaining that (a) her name really was Kyle, (b) she really wanted to be called by it. It was kind of amazing how much people professed utter confusion that a girl would be named Kyle.

    Also, Holly, a moment of total pedantry: This case, which went all the way up to the New York Supreme Court and then to appeals, misstates the case’s progression. It went to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court which, for reasons that serve to vex everyone not intimately familiar with NY’s court system, is the midlevel appeals court. The Supreme Court is the trial court and the Court of Appeals is the state’s version of what we’d normally call the Supreme Court.

  12. Bagelsan
    December 5, 2008 at 12:42 am

    The Supreme Court is the trial court and the Court of Appeals is the state’s version of what we’d normally call the Supreme Court.

    Maybe they should change their names to something more in line with their *real* status. That “level-bending” could cause confusion… :D

  13. Elizabeth
    December 5, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Okay, I’m fascinated by this — I just finished changing my legal surname, yay for getting my abusive father the hell out of my life in every way possible — and I never got the feeling that the application would be rejected for….pretty much any reason. Maybe it was different because I was doing my surname with no gender implication whatsoever, but I had the impression that the county clerk basically checked it the paperwork over for accuracy and consistency, cashed my check, and stamped it. And yes, this was in New York.

    Not saying this doesn’t happen, obviously it does, just — wow, hello, unexpected privilege! I knew there were class issues involved in this process (seriously, it should not cost over $300 total to get your identity legally accurate), but gender ones never crossed my mind.

  14. Go Amie
    December 5, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    Anon @5 – What a rotten thing to do. It reminds me of people who will insist upon calling married women by their “married names” (because they are their “real” names, of course..) when those women haven’t changed their names. It seems worse for a kid though, and definitely seriously racist. Not cool.

  15. Luna
    December 5, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    Try changing your name in Quebec if you want a real nightmare. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_change#Quebec

    It’s simply not done in most cases. Certainly not because you got married to someone.

  16. December 7, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    Naive question, perhaps, but what’s confusing about someone who perceives herself as a woman, presents herself as a woman, and is perceived by others as a woman using the name “Elizabeth”? Everyone I know named Elizabeth does at least two of those things.

    Steve, I’m a Lucy Stoner in both directions. I suppose hyphenating, where feasible, is an option.

  17. CookiesAtMidnight
    December 8, 2008 at 2:16 am

    The masculine form is né, so it would be Michael Bijon né Buday.

    Quebec is very sensible about marital name changes. If a woman wants to change her name just because she got married, she has to go through the same procedure as if she wanted to change it for any other reason. That policy has had the effect of encouraging more women to keep their names and more couples to give their children the mother’s surname or both surnames hyphenated.

  18. Sam
    December 8, 2008 at 9:52 am

    This case, which went all the way up to the New York Supreme Court…

    FYI, the case being in a New York Supreme Court does not mean it went “all the way up” and indicates no appeal at all. All of the county trial courts in New York State are called Supreme Courts (whereas they’re called things like Superior Court in some other states). When, for instance, a Kings County Supreme Court decision is appealed, it goes first to the Appellate Division and then, if appealed again, to the Court of Appeals.

  19. December 8, 2008 at 10:46 am

    Since that’s the second time someone has pointed that out, on top of someone sending me an organizational chart, I’ve fixed it. IANAL!!

  20. Robin
    December 8, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    What I’d like to know is, “traditional” by whose standards? I grew up in America, where my name is generally given to girls. When I took a trip to England with my mom, most of the hotels mistakenly booked us as “Mr. and Mrs. [lastname]”, because over there Robin is traditionally a masculine name. If they weren’t famous, would you be able to discern the genders of Robin Givens, Robin Williams, Robin Leech, or Robin Quivers just based on their names? Nope. More and more names are becoming gender neutral every year.

  21. CookiesAtMidnight
    December 9, 2008 at 1:59 am

    More names aren’t becoming gender neutral. As they have for decades, parents are giving boys names to girls, but not the reverse. Once a high enough percentage of girls have the name, it becomes “tainted” for boys, so parents will avoid it for their sons. Eventually, Logan, Cameron, Micah, etc. will be considered feminine, just as Ashley and Tracy are, even though all started as male names.

  22. DC
    December 14, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    The masculine/feminine nature of Shannon and Ashley vary by class and region in the US. I haven’t yet met a male Ashley (though I’ve heard of contemporary ones) but know at least 2 male Shannons, both upper-class.

    My friend Andrea remarked that she spent a great deal of time in Europe explaining that yes she was a girl, yes it was her given name, and no it’s not that unusual in the States. Andrea is an exclusively male name in Europe.

    Legal name changes are expensive where I live too, at about $150, two months wait, and a court appearance. And to my knowledge can be denied at the discretion of the judge. The local county court is friendly, but the surrounding counties are more variable.

  23. Alara Rogers
    December 16, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    Oh, yes, the phenomenon of the link between a name and a gender changing over time. Female chauvinist pig that I am, I was *deeply* upset to learn that both Evelyn Waugh and Joyce Kilmer were men, so in fact there is only *one* rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, Molly Pitcher, named for a woman. And I thought it was bad enough that there were only three!

    I always thought New York was an enlightened place when I was growing up there, but every so often I find out that all along they’ve been doing something that appalls me. I’m glad to hear they fixed this one, at least.

  24. December 28, 2008 at 3:42 am

    that really suck that this judge would be such a di*khead about this! rochester NY if I’m not right was where thie occurred- like the catholic-baptist ” bible belt” of upstate-western new york state full with just as many republican ” christians” as WV . I mean , true, it’s about the same in new york to get that ” F” , in my case , on your driver’s license ID so you can like, well, pee in the correct bathroom and stuff. [ letter from psycologist/psychiatist stating ” gender identity disorder”] ; so this judge was really a macho butthole!
    I’m a transgender woman myself and had my name legally changed here in connecticut without any problem just over two years ago on aug. 22,2006 . I am relatively poor and on SSDI/SSI and so, was told that I could get the $150 fee waived by proving my income. I was told by CT’s sister organization’s head, jerimarie lisegang of CT transadvocacy, to just go to the town probate court and it would be easy, which it was.

  25. December 28, 2008 at 4:06 am

    anyway, despite being told by another post-SRS transsexual to ” dress formally like a 43 year old businesswoman and not the 21 yr old in denim skirts you dress as”, following her advice; I showed up for court and was done in like 20 mins. they asked the usual stuff like ” purpose of name change” on forms [” transexual women in transition” I was told, the less the better!] as for the CT DMV , all I did was get a letter of diagnosis saying ” full time female” and, on jerimarie’s advice; drove all the way to DMV’s main office in wethersfield- something I was told could’ve been done just as easy in danbury! [ oct 5, 2006] and so, from that stupid name with the F mom named me based on those ” ugly parts” which never made me happy or successful in life, to Cheryl Lynne Oropal, as by then I was already on the do-it-yourself hormones plan and over a year wearing skirts.
    but can I relate to that ” legal name is you” thing! on the mother’s day just before the name and gender change, both my sister whom warned me not to show up at the restaurant in my dressy skirt and my mom; did their very best to constantly call me by that F*** name; as in ” F—- please pass this and that”. this after showing up wearing women’s dress slacks and blouse , literally trying hard humiliate me in front of all these older men dressed in tie & shirt. I think this was their plan- that I’d figure out how lucky I was to be that damn “man” thing they expected me to be; but to me made me feel like a worthless piece of s**t . how good it felt that august 22, 2006 when I came from that court legally CHERYL !

  26. December 28, 2008 at 4:14 am

    forgot to add one thing. out of curiousity, I went to http://www.babynamesworld.com just to see if Cheryl , and Lynne were either ” male” or ” female ” names. [ one which was my barbie doll’s name at age 9 and later, ” fantasy” name in high school daydreams- the other- named after Lynne, FL- the town where in H.S. drafting class Cheryl was having her house built] CHERYL is definitely a girl’s name, while LYNNE can go both ways- female here in USA but either in Germany!

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