What’s in a name? A lot

By Steve Kilar, May 2019 Issue.

“What’s in a name?”

Juliet ponders during Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers. She

wishes Romeo could abandon his last name, thereby undoing his association with

her family’s rival clan. “That which we call a rose by any other name would

smell as sweet,” she claims.

Changing a name does not change a person,

Juliet suggests. But what Shakespeare acknowledges is that changing a name can

transform how that person is perceived by the wider world. Names are loaded

with meaning, bogged down by history, and imbued with cultural associations.

In our highly gendered society, seeking a

name change can be a transformative and empowering experience for transgender

and genderqueer people.

“It feels good now to have my name legally

recognized, but not because it’s any more my identity now than it was before,

rather because it’s easier to assert myself and get treated with respect more

readily and challenged on my identity less often,” said Aeryn, a transgender

20-something from Philadelphia. Aeryn and a dozen other transgender and

nonbinary people shared their name change stories with Teen Vogue last

year.

A legal name change should be simple. “Just

about anyone can change his or her name, for any good reason,” according to the

official website for Arizona’s court system, azcourts.gov. But it’s not always

as easy as it should be.

In Arizona, a name change must be approved

by a county judge. That means bias and confusion can prevent the name change

process from going smoothly. Several transgender people have contacted the Southern

Arizona Gender Alliance and the ACLU of Arizona over the past few months to say

that a Yuma County Superior Court judge has been a barrier to their name

changes.

Under Arizona law, a person seeking a name

change must file a petition with the superior court of the county in which they

reside. The Arizona court system provides a short, uncomplicated form that can

be filled out and filed without the help of a lawyer.

The form asks for the applicant’s name

given at birth, current legal name, and desired name. The applicant is also

directed to list any felony convictions and affirm under penalty of perjury

that a few things about their desire to change their name are true, including

that they are not requesting the change for the “purpose of committing or

furthering any offense of theft, forgery, fraud, perjury, organized crime or

terrorism or any other offense involving false statements.” Then there’s a

brief space to describe why the applicant is seeking a name change.

From there, it’s up to the judge to decide

whether the name change should be granted. But the Arizona laws governing name

changes suggest that a petition should only be denied if there’s an indication

that the applicant is trying to engage in crime or evade law enforcement.

In Yuma County, it appears the judge

holding up — and in at least two cases, denying — name change petitions by

transgender people is confused about the legal requirements. This judge has

asked at least two applicants to provide a written statement from a doctor

verifying the applicants’ “chromosomal count” or stating the applicant has had

a “sex change operation.” A doctor’s note like this is required under Arizona

law to change a gender marker on a birth certificate; it is not a requirement

for a name change.

As opposed to mere confusion, it’s possible

the judge’s reasoning is grounded in something more problematic. Judges across

the country have unfortunately let their personal biases creep into decisions

on name change petitions. In 2016, a judge in Georgia denied a transgender

person’s petition because their desired name was too closely associated with a

single gender. The judge said he would only allow the applicant to change their

name “to something that is gender-neutral.” Fortunately, Lambda Legal got

involved and now it is clear to Georgia judges that they should not let sexist

and anti-transgender beliefs rule the day.

The ACLU of Arizona sent a letter in

mid-March to the head of Yuma County’s courts outlining the problem. The

Southern Arizona Gender Alliance and the ACLU are also working to ensure the

improper denials are reversed. Hopefully no more transgender or genderqueer

people are denied name changes in Yuma County or anywhere else in Arizona. The

law is on our side.

According

to an Arizona Supreme Court decision from 1980, “absent fraud or improper

motive, a person may adopt any name he or she wishes.” There are also several

court decisions from across the country that conclude transgender people should

not have to provide a doctor’s note to be granted a name change. In 2012, an

appeals court in New York reversed a trial court’s denial of a name change to a

transgender woman. As in Yuma County, the trial court judge wanted proof of

“sex-reassignment surgery” before signing off. The “law does not distinguish

between masculine and feminine names, which are a matter of social tradition,”

the appeals court said.


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