Changing Your Name

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #097, Spring 2002.

by D.L. Hawley

A person?s name is important; it is a part of self image, a reflection of a social or ethnic group, or a connection to a relative or famous person. For transsexuals, a name may be a betrayal of true self or a reminder of family, employer, or friend?s denial of change.

For transsexuals, adopting a new name is important. A gender-specific name is an significant element in being recognized as a member of a gender by the public. A new name enhances self-identity and sets a person apart from their old identity.
The Legal Issues

Anyone can assume a different name, so long as it?s not for fraudulent purposes. However, assuming a name doesn?t result in a change on documents. The only way to adopt a new name that will result in it being changed on documents is to apply for a legal change of name under state law.

Every state allows people to legally change their name. States vary in the procedure and cost, but the results are the same. There are basic requirements for a legal name change, including:

(1) it must not be for a fraudulent purpose;

(2) it must not be to avoid financial obligations;

(3) the application and evidence must meet all statutory

(4) the new name must be ordinary?for example, not that
of a famous real life or fictional person or a number.

Upon meeting these criteria a legal name change should be approved. This has not always been the case, however. In the 1970s, some courts refused a name change for transsexuals until they had completed sex reassignment surgery. Some courts were opposed to assisting people in transition. One court stated: ?We can think of nothing which might be more deceptive to the public than to allow a male to use a female name? (In re Richardson, 23 Pa. D. & C.3d 199, 1982.)

Fortunately, courts today are more educated about transsexuals and are willing to assist individuals in their transition (but see editor?s note, below). Courts now recognize that specific surgical procedures are not a prerequisite to a name change; that financial constraints may make SRS unavailable; that a name change should be granted without probing into the applicant?s sex or desire to express him or herself in any manner; that individuals living full-time in their desired gender encounter problems when required to present official identification, and a name change can prevent these problems; that a male (or female) has assumed a female (or male) identity in manner and dress is of no concern to the court and has no bearing on a simple name change application; and applications should be decided on a case-by-case basis (In re McIntyre, 715 A.2d 400, 1998); In re Harris, 707 A.2d 225, 1997).

One court stated:

Absent fraud or other improper purpose a person has a right to a name change whether he or she has undergone or intends to undergo a sex change through surgery, has received hormonal injections to induce physical change, is a transvestite, or simply wants to change from a traditional ?male? first name to a traditionally ?female,? or vice versa. Many first names are gender interchangeable?e.g. Adrian, Evelyn, Erin, Leslie, Lynn, Marion, Robin?and judges should be chary about interfering with a person?s choice of a first name? (In re Eck, 584 A.2d 859, 1991.)

Making the Change

Obtaining a legal name change is only the first step. Next is changing your name on all official identification and in every document and database that contains your name. Some places require your original name change document (e.g. Social Security Administration), others accept a photocopy (e.g. motor vehicle department), and some just take your word for it (doctor?s office) [It?s a good idea to purchase a good half-dozen or so official documents, since some agencies want to keep them?Ed]. In some cases it?s easiest to just get a new document (e.g. library card, video store card, voter registration).

As time passes, you?ll find additional places to change your. Keep a photocopy of your change of name document in your wallet so you?ll be ready for these as they arise.

You should to encourage and help your family, co-workers, and friends to use your new name. This may take time and patience, but it will pay off in the end.

D.L. Hawley is an anthropologist whose primary area of interest is the interrelationship between social change and legal change in two American populations--transgendered people and gay and lesbian people. She has an M.A. in anthropology and a law degree.

Editor?s Note: It?s still not unheard of for a transsexual to be denied a change of name?fortunately, it happens relatively rarely. Your editor knows of several transsexual women who were denied name changes in her home state of Georgia?most recently in 1999. In that case, the trans advocacy group Georgia Gender Education & Advocacy (now Trans=Action) was able to arrange an in-service for all Georgia judges.