Transgender people are challenging laws across several states that bar convicted felons from changing their legal names, a new report finds.
The report, published by the Marshall Project and Vox, details lawsuits being lodged in Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Pennsylvania where transgender felons are hoping their gender transition will provide them a new identity and an exception from present law.
What is the background?
Currently, at least 17 states automatically bar those convicted of certain felony crimes from changing their legal name. The purpose of these laws is to prevent dangerous criminals from misrepresenting themselves to the public.
"There's a danger that someone will change their name and try to misrepresent themselves. For example, someone who committed a crime against children finding a way to get a job around children by hiding their past," said Ed Clere, the Indiana state representative who sponsored the ban in his state.
The laws restrict name changes to varying degrees. In one of the states where a lawsuit has been filed, Illinois, a convicted felon may file a petition for a name change, but that petition may never be honored depending on the crime committed. Among the crimes for which that is often the case are sex crimes and identity theft.
But in some cases, exceptions have been made. Due to pushback, Indiana lawmakers decided to create exemptions to the name change ban "for marriage, divorce, adoption, and religion — but not for gender transition," the Marshall Project report notes.
The transgender plaintiffs in the lawsuits argue an exception should be granted to them, as well.
Trans people argue the bans unfairly harm them
The report goes on to chronicle stories from the lawsuits that it says range from "frustrating" to "chilling."
Such stories include constant reminders of one's birth name — or "deadname" — while in prison, the difficulty in landing a job after release, and awkward interactions in public.
Transgender people in prison in these states must use their birth name — sometimes referred to as a deadname in the transgender community — on official mail and on the prison phone system. In federal prison, this means that every five minutes during a call the phone system plays a recorded message with their former name. Several plaintiffs say they limit contact with family and friends to avoid this humiliation. Encounters with police once released can become fraught. During a traffic stop, police once accused one of the Texas women of stealing her own car because of the male name on her driver's license and registration.
Moira Meltzer-Cohen, one of the attorneys for the Texas plaintiffs, says that such treatment is essentially "torture."
"If the name that everyone is calling you consistently misgenders you, that's tantamount to torture," she said. "And it signals an institutional disrespect that exposes trans people to violence and disrespect and harassment, from both staff and other prisoners."
Texas plaintiff, Alexandra Carson, recalled how her job interview got gummed up after she had to explain why the legal name on her ID is male while filling out paperwork.
"She became very closed-off and brusque," Carson recalled of the manager. "Suddenly, it was, 'We have other people we have to talk to.'" A friend of Carson's who worked at the restaurant later told her the manager admitted she did not hire Carson because she is transgender. "She would never have known," said Carson, if not for the name on her identification.
The report does not note, however, that another potential reason that the restaurant manager decided not to offer her the job could have been that she was formerly convicted of a felony crime.
Burt Carson argues that, due to the law, trans people are constantly put in positions where they have "to tell somebody about something that is none of her business: What genitalia I was born with."
"It does leave me having to say things to people that nobody in that position would normally have to talk about," she added.
The Pennsylvania case will be the first to be tried in court, with a first round of arguments set to begin next month. According to the report, state authorities there argue that an official government ID is not private speech, and that the ban on name changes is "rationally related to the legitimate state interest of protecting public safety."