How Name Change Processes Impact Gender Expression and Privacy
Court obstacles faced while becoming yourself
Most cis people seem to regard a name change as a commonplace legal process — first and last names morph after marriage, divorce, or emigrating to the U.S. However, these processes are anything but routine for trans and gender non-conforming people. Legal names play a major role in one’s ability to pursue personal and professional goals. Legal names help shape all of our identities. For example, the names displayed on the paperwork you submit to schools, doctors’ offices, and employers gives society a certain impression of you, even before you meet in person.
Unfortunately, the journey through a name change can be paved with the systematic “outing” of a person’s gender status in newspapers, additional ID complications, and exorbitant fees. After examining name change paperwork for all 50 states, these seem to be the most common and problematic issues with regard to gender and privacy.
Being Outed in the Newspaper
In this era of queer activism and awareness, the idea of posting information about a person’s gender identity in a newspaper might sound ridiculous. Unfortunately, this occurs on a regular basis in over 30 states due to name change notice requirements. Since name changes are court-ordered, petitioners must have both their former and new names posted in a local newspaper. This forces trans and gender non-conforming people to open up their identities to public scrutiny, which could lead to serious consequences, such as discrimination or transphobic violence.
Pennsylvania’s process is particularly awful. According to state law, residents must publish their name change in two different newspapers, dramatically increasing the public exposure of your name change. And states like Idaho and Montana make you publish the notices up to four times in a single month, taking the toll on privacy even further.
According to the Judicial Branch of California, the newspaper notice is meant to “help prevent fraud by letting people know you are changing your name and giving them a chance to object.” However, these tactics come with the additional impact of destroying privacy for trans and gender non-conforming people. You are faced with some very tough decisions regarding public identity if you live in areas that enforce the newspaper publication requirement.
On the flip side, at least a dozen states don’t require name change publications. Washington, Arkansas, Connecticut, and several other states use court hearings instead. You appear in front a judge and declare under oath that you are not changing your name for fraudulent purposes. Counties in states like North Carolina and Oregon post notices about name changes on a courthouse bulletin board, which has significantly less visibility than a newspaper listing (but still outs people through former and new name publication).
Continuing ID Hurdles
A legal name change can pave the way to getting other IDs, such as a driver’s license, social security card, and a passport with your new name. Unfortunately, updating or amending birth and marriage certificates can be tricky or even impossible, depending on the state you live in. While court-ordered name changes allow you to alter your birth certificate name, states like Ohio, Tennessee, and Idaho will not make any changes to sex markers, according to Lambda Legal. Even worse, the ACLU explains that birth certificate changes can threaten the validity of a person’s marriage status, depending on laws regarding same-sex marriage.
Finally, the fees associated with getting a name change can be very cost prohibitive, especially for low-income folks. Filing fees range based on your county of residence — they can be as low as $8 (in Jefferson County, Ky.) and as high as $435 (Orange County, Calif.) Luckily, residents in many states can apply for fee waivers if they aren’t able to afford these costs.
However, filing fees are just the tip of the iceberg. In states that require a newspaper notice, it can cost you upwards of $100 per announcement. In a twist of bitter irony, petitioners are expected to pay high publication fees to out themselves. These expenses are even higher in counties that require notices in two newspapers. Once the dust has settled from county court fees and newspaper publishing expenses, the entire process can amount to hundreds of dollars, according to TransCentralPA.
So what can we do about these challenges? Community activists and policy makers can push for greater ease and inclusion when it comes to name change processes in their respective counties and states. For example, community advocates like Assembly Member Toni Atkins penned AB 1121, which passed in California last year. This bill will allow trans and gender nonconforming people to skip the public newspaper notice, effective in July 2014.
Hopefully, we’ll see a greater push toward privacy protection and inclusion with future process revisions. If you live in a county or state with these name change hurdles, reach out to your local legislative offices and gender rights organizations to see how to encourage revisions to your local name change processes.
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