Three trans women have filed a lawsuit that challenges a provision of Pennsylvania’s name change law that doesn’t allow people convicted of some felonies, such as aggravated assault, to change their names.
Alonda Talley, Chauntey Mo’Nique Porter, and Priscylla Renee Von Noaker are working with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and the law firm Reed Smith, which is working on the case pro bono, to build a constitutional challenge. They filed a lawsuit Wednesday to have the court declare this provision of the law unconstitutional and to enjoin the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from enforcing it.
The amendment to the law on name changes went into effect in 1998 and was designed to prevent fraud, such as to circumvent financial obligations, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The women’s complaint argues that under the Pennsylvania constitution, it is a fundamental right to control your name.
“The Pennsylvania Constitution does not allow for a system under which a person has no opportunity to show that they are seeking a name change for a non-fraudulent purpose (such as to reflect a gender transition), and a court has no opportunity to decide whether the petitioner is seeking a name change for a non-fraudulent purpose,” the complainants argue.
As a result of not being able to change their names, the women say they suffer harassment and are prevented from getting the health care they need.
Porter was convicted of aggravated assault in 2008. As a result of her not being able to change her name, she said she has experienced abuse, harassment, and humiliation from police, employers, coworkers, and service providers such as bank employees, the lawsuit explains. She said in 2017, doctors told her she didn’t qualify for a transition-related surgery because her current legal name is evidence of her not “living as a woman.”
The women also described incidents such as being forced to go into offices in person for finances and other tasks people can usually do over the phone due to the lack of name change.
It’s already fairly difficult for transgender people to change their names and gender markers regardless of whether they been convicted of a crime or face other challenges, such as immigration status. For gender markers, some states require a surgical procedure of some kind but don’t state what that procedure must be. Many transgender people can’t afford surgeries or don’t want surgeries. In this respect, many of the policies around name and gender marker changes assume that all trans people have exactly the same experiences and paths toward transitioning. Filing fees for name changes can also be expensive. In some states, transgender people have to print a notification of a name change in a local newspaper, which also costs money. These challenges also affect transgender people’s voting rights. Alonda Talley, one of the women involved in the Pennsylvania lawsuit, said her identity has been questioned when she went to exercise her voting rights.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS), only 11% of trans people have their name and gender that corresponds with their gender on all identity documents and records. The survey also showed that 32% of trans people who did not have IDs matching their gender presentation said they had experiences being attacked, harassed, or denied services.
Many trans people face financial barriers and some of the most marginalized transgender people are involved in the criminal justice system. The USTS survey shows 29% of respondents said they were living in poverty, which was even higher for respondents of color, and 12% of undocumented respondents had been incarcerated in the past year. Nine percent of black trans women and 7% of homeless trans people were incarcerated in the past year, respectively.
States have considerable variations in their policies on whether people convicted of crimes can change their names, according to a guide by Trans Lifeline Microgrants which was last updated in the fall of 2017. Some states don’t have any limitations at all and others target sex offenders specifically. In some cases, people convicted of crimes have to wait a decade to change their names. In Alabama, people can’t change their names if they’ve been convicted of a felony, sex offense, or a “crime of moral turpitude,” a broad term that can apply to almost any crime. In Texas, when people try to change their name, they fill out a petition and list all convictions above Class C misdemeanors. If someone has a felony, it can be pardoned or they must wait until two years after release from parole or probation, or two years after receiving a certificate of discharge from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.