What’s In A Name?

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We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet – where two star crossed lovers are destined for tragedy because their families are having a feud.   “What’s in a name” is the phrase Juliet utters at the beginning of her soliloquy where she tells Romeo that his name doesn’t matter to her.  But for many transgender and gender-diverse people, names do matter.  A lot. 

 For 54-year-old Christine, changing her name was a symbol for taking control of her life.  She had informally been using her chosen name for several years, but that did not allow her to live fully and wholly in her true gender.  To her, getting a legal name change was about “standing up, emerging from the shadows, and publicly saying this is who I am!”  It was about asserting an identity that had been subordinated for decades.

Another trans person who asked to remain anonymous said that getting their legal name change allowed them to move on and avoid the constant reminders of their old name and the misgendering that came with it.  “All of my Company’s records – from email addresses to 401k statements were tied to my dead name” they said.  “I felt like I couldn’t move forward because I was being constantly reminded about my old life and my dead name.”

Other trans people have practical reasons for obtaining a legal name change.  This includes everything from dealing with bank tellers to TSA agents.  Taran, 29, says “I travel a lot, and having a name and gender that matches how you identify [and] how society perceives you, makes navigating public spaces a little less stressful.”

Jessica, age 35 shares, “It’s really awkward to apply to a job and have to explain why your documents don’t match the name on your resume.” Lilia, 58, reinforced this.  “Employers are much more supportive when legal documentation and Social Security information matches a person’s presentation.”

Name Changes Don’t Come Easy – Or Cheap!

In Pennsylvania, anyone has the right to informally change their name. In other words, you can ask your friends, relatives and others to use your chosen name.  Informal name changes, however, do not allow a transgender person to have new identification documents issued in their chosen name.

To formally change their name, they must petition the County Court of Common Pleas for a court order that legally recognizes their chosen name.  A judge is not obligated to grant the petition and will not do so if they believe the petitioner is seeking to change their name to avoid debts or evade criminal prosecution.  Additionally, anyone can file an objection to your name change petition.

According to lawyers, the process of obtaining a legal name change is fairly straight forward but for many transgender people it feels intimidating.  The name change process and requirements vary from county to county and the legal paperwork can be complex.  A legal name change can also be out of reach due to cost which can easily cost $500 or more for people who chose to complete the process on their own.  If they decide they need the help of a lawyer, the cost can exceed $1,500 or more.

Issues of Personal Safety

Pennsylvania – like many states – requires that the intent to change a name be made public. This requires publishing advertisements in a newspaper and the local law journal prior to the hearing before a County judge.  Unfortunately, with over 80% of trans folk reporting being verbally abused and approximately one-third having been physically assaulted, this creates a very real safety risk for transgender people. 

The publication requirement predates the existence of Social Security numbers and was implemented to prevent debt evasion.  With automated credit reporting that is available nowadays, this requirement is not only unnecessary but also creates a risk ostracism or violence from fellow residents.

Another Obstacle

There is another challenge to getting a legal name change – the requirement for a criminal background check.  This requires the person to go to a police station or county prison to be fingerprinted.  They then must submit the fingerprint card to the Court which will have the State Police conduct a detailed criminal background check.   

Being fingerprinted by the authorities is an intimidating process for anyone, but since 16% of surveyed trans folk have worked in the underground economy and over 50% have been harassed by the police they face additional challenges.  Pennsylvania law prohibits a person from changing their name if they have been convicted of most felonies and, therefore, this requirement is a real deterrent to many trans people who wish to undertake a legal name change.

Help Is Available

But now, with the launch of a new non-profit organization, assistance is available for trans people who are seeking a name change in the Lehigh Valley. 

The Eastern PA Trans Equity Project (EPTEP) helps to trans people navigate the legal process by providing an automated legal form tool which invites trans folk to enter some basic information and then be provided a link where they can print accurate and complete legal paperwork that they can then submit to the Court.  They even include step-by-step instructions written in plain English.  All the user has to do is go to the EPTEP website at PATransEquity.org to access this service.

EPTEP is also working to solve the issue of cost by offering residents of Lehigh and Northampton counties the opportunity to apply for financial assistance.  Grants will be distributed on a quarterly basis and are intended to help not only with court-related costs, but also the fees associated with getting a new driver’s license, passport and other required items.  The final amount of the grant is based on the amount of need and the amount of available funds

Another Step In Living A Full And Engaged Life

As Leon, age 21 from Allentown says “To go without a legal name change is to constantly see the name of a person who no longer exists. It is a constant reminder of someone I do not want to be, and certainly someone I don’t want to be seen as. This name is on everything. There are the legal IDs of course—passports, driver’s licenses, but those are obvious. This name also appears on credit cards, resumés, gym memberships, medications. A name is a fundamental part of identity, and to exist without a name is to be invisible.”

Another trans person – Carley from Wind Gap – had this to say:  Deciding on my name was easy, but legally changing my name was challenging and frightening at times.  That’s why having good support, a good plan, and good counsel is important as you go through what is an emotional process.  There is a sensational feeling of rebirth, so allow your emotions to bubble-up, you have hidden them enough! 

EPTEP is here to help Leon, Carley, and others like them so they can be validated, reborn, and most critically, be visible.