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.