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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