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Jan 4, 2012
One of the major milestones of gender transition is the name change. Unless one was blessed to have parents give them a gender neutral first and middle name (and provided the person likes both names), we often are given names which do not match our gender identity (I, for one, had an ultramasculine first and middle name). To have that final order stating that you are now your new preferred name in your hands feels like a real blessing, knowing that that old name is history and your preferred name is also your legal name. That day for me came on August 16, 2011; but here in Pennsylvania, it is needlessly difficult, and there needs to be a change in the process, not just for the trans population, but for anyone who needs or wants to change their name.
THE STORY OF HOW I (LEGALLY) BECAME JORDAN:
It was a balmy summer day at a campground in West Virginia in July 2009 when I announced to my fellow campers (en homme) that I would be leaving, and that they would have a new camper coming named Jordan. I (wearing shorts and a t-shirt) set up the costume tent before dinner, and raided it for every piece of feminine clothing that would fit me (which was very few). Finally, around 7 o’clock, (my old name) was gone, and Jordan was born.
For the next 18 months, people knew me as Jordan while having to use my old name when necessary. Even as I left home for Pittsburgh, it would seem as if there would be a lot of barriers in being legally able to change my name (financial, procedural, etc.), and a lawyer who I talked to did not even know the many ways around the atrocious cost (north of $700). However, when I moved to Philadelphia, I finally figured out how to do it, and in early April, I began the process.
Mazzoni Legal Services is a legal aid organization which specializes in LGBT law. Included among their materials is a guide to changing one’s name specifically geared towards the trans community, which can be accessed here. After studying over it for several days, I came to realize that many of these barriers could be negotiated and that I had nothing to lose.
Although a lawyer is not necessary, it ends up being useful in certain situations, as I would realize later on. The first part of the process is handing in a petition with one’s driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate (which involved me having to book a Zipcar out to my old county to get said document), and fingerprints to send to the state police to verify whether I have a criminal record. Mazzoni Legal Services gave me a sample fill-in-the-blank petition to fill out — yet it was initially confusing. In retrospect, I do not know why I did not seek their services, which I was eligible for.
I then went to City Hall in early April to file my petition. Both in terms of bureaucracy and interior physical presence, that beautiful historical building at Broad and Market can be a very labyrinthian place, and the process was complicated further by me having to go to yet another room to fill out a petition to proceed in forma pauperis (which allows those in financial need to disregard the over $300 fee to file the petition, among other things).
After having to shift through many rooms and several floors (this has to be a security issue for the building), I was done and I waited for the next step. I received a call a few weeks later from a city hall extension stating that my prints came back clean (as expected), and that I would be able to do the judgment searches, the final step in the process in which one has to pay an obscene amount of money and wait while you put in requests to every county you’ve lived in for the past five years for a sheet of paper stating whether there are any judgments against you.
However, I had to get over another hurdle, which was publication. Under Pennsylvania law, one must publish the name change in both a general circulation newspaper and a legal paper based in the county in which one lives, which in Philadelphia, can range between $370-$420. This is NOT waivable via in forma pauperis, however, it can be waived upon request if you feel your life would be threatened by publication. I filed for a waiver, and in mid-May, I went before a judge in her chambers in a proceeding that lasted less than two minutes before she approved me. Judges here are known for their fairness towards the trans community, and this was no different, however, as Mazzoni’s guide points out, judges in other counties are more reluctant to grant waivers (probably ranging from "crapshoot" in places like Montgomery County or Pittsburgh to "having one’s chops busted" in Venango County).
After that, I began the judgment search process. I started off with the civil court searches, which was done in the prothonotary’s office. After many delays, I got my certified search. However, when I went to Family Court, they told me I had to have a court date, which I was not going to get, even if I tried
In Pennsylvania, there is usually a final court appearance before the name change is approved or denied. However, Philadelphia, owing to its clogged court system, does not require a final court appearance, only that documents be sent to the court and the judge approve them, so thus, what they were asking me was an impossibility. Then came the part that almost snagged me, the judgment searches in other counties. I discovered that they could NOT be waived with my IFP and would cost north of $600. All hope seemed lost, until the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference.
The conference lasts for three days, and on the third day, they have a legal clinic done by Mazzoni. I signed up for services, explained my situation, and I was informed that I was eligible for their services and that I needed a lawyer in order to satisfy all the searches. I got a legal intern, and that next week, I met with him, gave him all the counties I lived in for the last five years. It would take two months (probably because some counties like to take their sweet time), but 4 months and about a week after I started the process, my final order was signed.
I must reiterate, that yes, I am lucky to have had the privilege of being able to legally switch over to my preferred name. But, the activist in me always has to ask: Is there a better way? Is there another state where the process is a little bit more streamlined; a model which could be replicated here in the Keystone State? As with many matters of policy in Pennsylvania, the answer was yes.
CASE STUDY: CONNECTICUT
Trans Road Map is a great website in which people have shared their stories about going through the name change process in various states. I found this piece concerning Connecticut.
In June 2008 a reader sent this:
I had my name changed last month in Avon, CT. The whole thing took 2 weeks. First you got to make an appointment. You show them your birth certificate and id, then they send you a letter telling you your appointment. They also ask for your social security number. Then you show up to meet with the judge in her office. She will ask you a series of questions, then you get 4 copies of your court order. There was no need to list anything in the newspaper.
This was one person’s experience, and I cannot vouch for its complete accuracy. However, another website geared towards the trans community reveals that that anecdote may not be far from the truth.
-Adults complete an Application For Change of Name (Adult) Form PC-901
-Minors complete Application For Change of Name (Minor) Form PC-900
-Completed forms are submitted to the local Probate Court, which has the authority to grant name changes
-Currently the Probate Court application fee for a Name Change is $150
-All courts provide a waiver of fees if you meet certain income requirements. To request a waiver of fees complete Probate Form PC-184, Request/Order Waiver of Fees – Petitioner
-Though a name change request may also be submitted to Superior Court, it is more convenient to use the Probate Court for a name change
-The form does require you to complete the section: "A change of name is sought for the following reasons". What you fill in here will depend upon the level of detail you desire to disclose. Responses can be as general as for personal reasons, medical reasons or disclosure that you are in the process of transitioning. The probate process occurs in a relatively informal environment [typically conference room] and with only the Probate Judge present
-Supporting Documentation required is your legal birth certificate
-You are not required to provide any supporting documentation from a therapist or medical professional to change your name. Any such request could be considered discriminatory in the State of Connecticut
-The process for a name change typically takes up to four weeks.
So, comparing the process in Connecticut to the process in Pennsylvania…
-CT provides that one may file in the local probate court; which is a more appropriate venue for a simpler, more cut-and-dry legal process, while in Pennsylvania, name changes are heard in the local Court of Common Pleas – Civil Division, where your name change may be commingled in with more complicated litigation involving extensive motion play (which can be really troublesome in urban counties).
-The name change is a simple ready-made form in Connecticut, while in Pennsylvania, one must type a petition from scratch.
-The turnaround for Connecticut’s name change from initial filing to final order is only one month, while Pennsylvania has a 3-6 month turnaround for this matter.
-The initial filing fee in Connecticut is only $150 (waivable), while Pennsylvania’s is twice that (not including the numerous other fees involved, waivable to different extents).
-There is no requirement to publish in CT, but there is in PA (waivable in theory, but success can be variable).
-In Connecticut, the only reason a name change would be rejected is if it’s proven that the name change is only being sought to perpetrate fraud, while Pennsylvania absolutely bars name changes for certain felonies.
DEBUNKING SOME MYTHS:
It would seem unprecedented that a criminal record, no matter how serious the felony, should not be an automatic bar to a name change in Pennsylvania, however, consider the case of Ophelia Dell’Onta, a transwoman currently serving 70 years in prison for armed robbery in Virginia. She was able to get her name legally changed from Michael Stokes WHILE IN PRISON!!!. Thus, if a conservative southern state would allow a name change for somebody currently incarcerated, then it seems that Pennsylvania ought to be open to removing the bars to name changes for all crimes.
Now, a lot of people say that making it easier to change one’s name would make it easier for sex offenders to fall out of compliance, deadbeat "dads" to cheat alimony, and for people to default on their debts. NEWS FLASH!!! This isn’t the 1850s, where a scofflaw can ride a horse over Vine or South Streets, or row across the Schuylkill or Delaware rivers, and never get caught. Criminal databases are linked up, methods of compliance are enhanced, and a Social Security Number, which is used for incurring debts of any type, cannot be changed with a simple name change. Furthermore, courts have everything they need at their fingertips, in terms of judgment searches and criminal records.
From a lawyer in Connecticut:
I did have a man with a criminal past who, against my advice, did file for a name change. The judge later told me that the man had a ‘record’ a mile long and when asked about it, he simply shrugged it off as youthful misadventure. The judge denied the application.
So, if Connecticut’s more simple method, as outlined above, can still manage to root out fraud, then I am for it.
You don’t have to be a person of transgender experience to realize that the emotional welfare of an individual may be dependent on a name change. While Pennsylvania’s name change law makes for an unnecessarily messy process, states like CT have found the right balance between being able to change name without hindrance and the right of creditors or the criminal justice system to not be able to never find a person. It’s time for a change in the Keystone State. Make this process cleaner and more accessible!!
-Jordan Gwendolyn Davis