The complex process of name changing for the transgender community

Members of the transgender community have a tough time changing their names and genders on their IDs

Members of the transgender community have a tough time changing their names and genders on their IDs Ian Taylor

Senate Democrats heard testimony Tuesday from a variety of stakeholders discussing barriers the transgender community faces when trying to legally change their name and gender. Pennsylvania allows informal use of names, but the name change statute requires filing court proceedings in order to have legal documents and identification records changed. 

"There are far too many legal and social obstacles for transgender Pennsylvanians,” state Sen. Amanda Cappelletti said. “By making it easier to change names and gender at the state level, we can alleviate some of the legal burdens that our transgender community faces regularly. Removing these barriers means that more Pennsylvanians can live their authentic life.” 

Those who testified explained that the cost for court filings can be hundreds of dollars, and few programs exist that can help people with the costs. These expenses include fingerprinting, filing fees, publications, judgement searches and certified decrees. Some expenses can be waived based on income and safety, but even excluding attorney fees, the process can range anywhere from $400 to $900.

The statutory process can be expensive and time-consuming, and can vary by county. As Thomas Ude, legal and public policy director of the Mazzoni Center, explained, a person seeking a name change (or their attorney) must publish notice of hearings and proceedings and conduct judgment searches where they lived during the last five years. This can add multiple steps to the process, especially for those that have moved multiple times. Any previous felony convictions can also lead to years of delays. 

“The arduous and costly process imposed by the Commonwealth to make legal name and gender changes on state IDs harder is nothing less than state sanctioned discrimination. As legislators, we will continue to raise this issue in order to make Pennsylvania a safe space for all communities,” state Sen. Katie Muth said.

In addition to cost and legal barriers, safety is another concern. 

“Name change statute generally requires petitioners to give notice of their petition and hearing date by newspaper publication, and/or to provide notice to any non-petitioning parent of a child

whose name is impacted by the petition,” said Ude.

The requirement can be waived by the court if it finds notice would jeopardize the safety of the person seeking the name change. In many cases, a judge may only grant a waiver if the petitioner’s history includes threats or harassment. Also, petitioners may be required to appear in court in order to request the waiver, meaning those court documents would be available to the public regardless. 

“As a matter of safety, efficiency, and equal application, an administrative name change procedure is preferable to one involving the courts,” Charlie Arrowood, Name Change Project Counsel, Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, testified. “Court costs are often higher than other agency fees and interacting with the courts can be an overwhelming and unmanageable experience for many people, particularly transgender pro se name change petitioners.”

Some also shared stories related to having incongruent documents when in public. This can lead to issues involving law enforcement or other entities that require identification. 

“With the current state of my ID and papers, there is a greater risk of me being outed in public spaces or with law enforcement interactions,” Camille Snare, student advocate at York College, said. “Not every bar, club, tattoo parlor, or other space in which an ID is required is going to be welcoming to transgender and gender non-conforming folks like myself.”

Legislators were urged to look at procedural changes other states have implemented, including California, Colorado and Nevada, who eliminated the publication requirement through statute. 

New York, which recently passed the Gender Recognition Act, now allows people to use “X” as a sex designation on a driver’s license and has eased the process for name changes. 

Arrowood said the change “overhauls” the name and gender changing process, as well as removes the requirement to publish changes. They added that all these changes have been codified so the law remains in statute no matter what administration is in office. 

Gov. Tom Wolf has been a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community, but measures pushed by members and allies haven’t picked up traction in the Republican-controlled legislature. Some legislation, such as the Pennsylvania Fairness Act, has received bipartisan support and has been applauded by the administration. With Wolf’s term coming to an end, LGBTQ advocates will continue to shine a spotlight on issues impacting the community.