Q. I am a transgender woman who would like to legally change my name. I live in Savannah, Ga. and this issue has been a big deal lately after your client, Rowan Feldhaus, was denied a name change by a judge in Augusta. From reading the news articles, I know the judge’s decision will probably be overturned, but what do I do if I encounter this problem when I seek my name change?
A. For many transgender people, a name change is one of the most important steps toward matching their legal documents with their gender identity. Though there are few exceptions under which a court can deny someone the right to a name change, being transgender is not one of them. A judge cannot arbitrarily deny you a name change based on transphobic or sexist notions.
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In Rowan’s case, the judge stated that he would deny the requested name unless Rowan chose another middle name, because the name chosen, “Elijah,” was not gender-neutral and he “do[es] not approve of changing names from male to female — male names to obvious female names, and vice versa.”
This happened despite the fact that Rowan took all necessary steps and provided all the necessary information for a name change. He also provided evidence to educate the court about transgender people and the need for identity documents that accurately reflect their gender identity. He produced an affidavit from his therapist, who confirmed that Rowan is transgender and was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and that changing his name would be an important part of his treatment. Rowan further testified that he was not delinquent on bills or trying to elude creditors by changing his name — generally considered the only valid reason to deny a name change. But the judge still denied his request, even claiming it would be “dangerous” for a person not to know someone else’s gender by that person’s name.
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The real threats to public safety come from those who refuse to respect name choices, gender identity or who abuse their authority because a name doesn’t fit a sexist stereotype. We believe this type of sex discrimination is a violation of federal law and your constitutional rights. Lambda Legal will continue advocating for Rowan and others arbitrarily denied these important opportunities to be affirmed and protected equally under the law.
If you’d like to seek a name change and are concerned that you may encounter this problem, contact Lambda Legal’s Help desk for more information at 866-542-8336) or visit lambdalegal.org/help.
— Betty Littrell is a senior attorney with Lambda Legal.