Thursday, November 19, 2009

Name changes and forced outing: a small victory

Governments force transgender people to disclose that they are transgender all the time. They make us carry around little pieces of paper and plastic with our birth-assigned sex listed on them, just begging any police officer, bank teller, customs official, airline agent or the like to ask just what are you anyway? They keep that old sex designation in computer files – your driving record, your Social Security record, Medicare record – that get shared here and there. They make us appear in open court, or take out an ad in the newspaper, to announce that we’re changing out name from Kate to Kevin, or from Kevin to Kate. They say this is necessary for “accuracy” and “fraud prevention.” These government systems very seldom recognize the very real dangers of the official outing of trans people in so many areas of our lives – the dangers not only of embarrassment, discrimination and harassment, but the very real danger of violence when we are outed against our will to untold numbers of strangers. So it was refreshing recently to see one government body – namely a court in Westchester County, New York – show a genuine recognition of these dangers.

State courts hear thousands upon thousands of petitions each year from individuals seeking to change their names. These petitions are usually granted perfunctorily, and very rarely result in written opinions, let alone published ones. Except, it seems, when they are filed in New York, and by a transgender person. Since 1968, I’m aware of at least at least seven New York published court opinions dealing solely with a transgender person’s name-change petition. Over the years transgender New Yorkers have fought to get courts to apply the name-change statute fairly to them. In 2003 a trans woman won a decision that, contrary to earlier opinions, proof of a surgical procedure was not required for her name change. Earlier this year a young trans man won his case on appeal, repudiating dozens of cases in which judges had required clinical documentation of a person’s gender identity for a name change.

Make that eight, with a ruling from the Supreme Court in Westchester County on November 10. In this case, another young trans man petitioned for an exception to the standard New York practice of publishing a notice of the name change in an area newspaper. Many jurisdictions have such a requirement, and only some of them provide for a discretionary exception. Past petitioners in New York had gotten such an exception because they were victims of domestic violence. In this case, the court pointed to numerous reports indicating the high rates of bias-motivated violence against transgender people, and to the recently passed Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The judge concluded that “while petitioner did not, and hopefully could not, cite a personal experience of violence or crime against him based on his gender identity, he has made a compelling argument as to why, at the age of twenty, he has a right to feel threatened for his personal safety in the event his transgender status is made public.” Accordingly, the judge granted the exemption, made the name change immediately, and ordered that the court records be sealed. The case is In re E.P.L., --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 11/16/2009 N.Y. L.J. 40, 2009 WL 3764453 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Westchester Co. Nov. 10, 2009).

This is not a binding legal precedent, and it doesn’t speak directly to trans people’s issues with passports, Social Security records, and on and on. But it does reflect a rare official recognition that government-mandated outing is dangerous for trans people. And that’s a start.

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